Radical Reform for Local Government or Groundhog Day?

Local Government Reform Seminar, Drogheda, 16th January 2014

Irish Planning Institute

Ciarán Cuffe, School of Spatial Planning and Transport Engineering, Dublin Institute of Technology

It is a pleasure, privilege and a slightly daunting challenge to be speaking with you today. You might ask why me? Well, I’m a planner, so I guess that helps. I also spent twelve years as a councillor on Dublin City Council, a few years in the Dáil, and what seemed like about 5 minutes as a Junior Minister with responsibility for Ireland’s Planning Minister, so I guess that got me the gig.

I am charged with giving the background and detail of the local government Bill and thus giving participants an understanding of the key elements of it and an opportunity to discuss its implications. I intend giving some background to local government in Ireland and my own experience of local government followed by an overview and critique of the legislation current before the Oireachtas.

My own interest in politics stemmed from concerns about loss of heritage in Dublin City at Wood Quay in 1970’s and a few years later the ill-advised road transportation proposals and demolition of older buildings in Dublin City. As I studied architecture at University College Dublin – a new-build campus in the suburbs I realised to my horror that city officials had embraced a vision of car-dominated planning and the modern super-block. This was a good quarter of a century after Jane Jacobs had so clearly criticised the Robert Moses like plans for central Dublin. The Clanbrassil Street Dual carriageway was the Dublin equivalent of New York’s West Side Highway: roads that destroyed living communities. Both were seriously flawed.

This led me to running for office on Dublin City Council in 1991, and soon realising the constraints of office, a lesson that served me well some time later as member of the Junior Party in Government between 2007 and 2011.  In the late twentieth century, and still today local government in Ireland has few powers and is dominated by both central government and the will of the City or County Manager.

The European Charter of Local Self-Government was agreed by the Council of Europe in 1985 and it stated that local authorities are one of the main foundations of any democratic regime. The Council said the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs is one of the democratic principles that are shared by all member States of the Council of Europe. The Council said it is at local level that this right can be most directly exercised; and it was convinced that the existence of local authorities with real responsibilities can provide an administration which is both effective and close to the citizen. It also said that the safeguarding and reinforcement of local self-government in the different European countries is an important contribution to the construction of a Europe based on the principles of democracy and the decentralisation of power; and asserting that this entails the existence of local authorities endowed with democratically constituted decision-making bodies and possessing a wide degree of autonomy with regard to their responsibilities. Strong words indeed.

In 1991 the Barrington Report was issued on Local Government Reorganisation and Reform, closely followed by the 1991 Act that paved the way for the four Dublin Local Authorities of Fingal, South Dublin, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown and Dublin City in 1994.  I believe the quartering of Dublin was quite damaging for the Capital City and led to inappropriate development in greater Dublin.

 Figure 1. Four Dublin Counties

Figure 1. Four Dublin Counties

Barrington stated in the report’s conclusion that “the case for devolution of functions from the centre, to a new reorganised and revitalised local government system is ultimately a political one depending on assumptions about the sort of society we want in the 21st century, the proper balance between the centre and the local level, (and) the desirability of giving local communities greater control over their lives…”

I wish to pay tribute to the late Tom Barrington at this stage. He was born in 1917 and died in 2000. He was the first Director of the Institute for Public Administration, and was a significant force in the drafting of the 1963 Planning Act which celebrates fifty years of enactment next October.

Barrington was a fervent advocate for allocating more functions to local Government. A Table in his 1991 Report shows the distribution of functions in various European countries.

Figure 2. Local Government Powers in various Countries, Barrington 1991Figure 2. Local Government Powers in various Countries, Barrington 1991


The table is characterised by a lot of white space in the area where other countries have strong powers at local level.

Of course you can make the point that the States population is similar to greater Manchester, but I took the time to reference Manchester and actually Great Manchester only has a population of less than 2.7 million, and the city’s population is only 503,000. They still manage to have responsibility for bins, schools planning and childcare. In Ireland local authorities functions are minimal and will not be significantly enhanced by the Local Government Bill. I remember visiting the town of Aarhus in Northern Denmark as a councillor several years ago as a Councillor and meeting a Danish council colleague. Her council had responsibility for health, housing, education and transport. I had to explain that Dublin City Council did not even have the power to move a bus stop.

There were two addendums attached to the 1991 Barrington Report, one written by Dr. Donal Buitleir and the other by Architect Mary Doyle. Both are worth commenting on, even though they were written over twenty years ago.

De Buitlear felt that “the whole purpose of Local Government reform will be negated unless there is the potential for increased democratisation of the system.” He proposed that the Chief Executive of the Local Authority would be elected by the voters at large. He believed that an elected Chief Executive would have a greater mandate to act decisively and independently than any appointed official. He also stated that Regional Authorities should be directly elected, and that the old system of Section 4s should be abolished.

Doyle proposed a more defined Metropolitan Region for Dublin incorporating Kildare, Meath and Wicklow, defined by the limits of daily commuter travel. She hoped that a “Metropolitan Regional Authority would co-ordinate the activities of its various subdivisions in relation to future planning policies for environment, finance, housing, transport and many other relevant bodies and activities.”

Sadly their views were not taken on board in the limited reforms setting up the new Dublin counties in 1994. In that same year another Local Government Act gave local authorities the power to acquire lands for libraries, and allotments, ground-breaking changes in a certain sense, but not particularly radical.

The 1990s were also characterised by the setting up of new quangos such as Temple Bar Properties, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and Ballymun Regeneration Limited, as well as Area based and Community Partnerships to tackle disadvantage, unemployment and social exclusion. I understand that the prevailing view in Government at that time was that local authorities hadn’t the competencies to assume those functions at that time, but I contend that the outcomes from those respective organisations might have been improved had their functions been more firmly vested within the direct control of the local authority system.

It wasn’t until till 1999 that constitutional recognition was granted to local government in Ireland, possibly from some sense of embarrassment that the 100th anniversary of Local Government had passed a year previously without such recognition. The principal features of the twentieth amendment to the constitution (article 28A) are that:

1. The State recognises the role of local government in providing a forum for the democratic representation of local communities, in exercising and performing at local level powers and functions conferred by law and in promoting by its initiatives the interests of such communities.

2. There shall be such directly elected local authorities as may be determined by law and their powers and functions shall, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, be so determined and shall be exercised and performed in accordance with law.

3. Elections for members of such local authorities shall be held in accordance with law not later than the end of the fifth year after the year in which they were last held.

Local Elections hadn’t taken place between 1991 and 1999 leaving those of us who had been elected in 1991 feeling a certain sense of Groundhog Day every year in early June when we voted for a Lord Mayor who would have the privilege of wearing the Mayor chain for the next twelve months.

The 2001 Local Government Act was a significant piece of legislation with 247 sections. It brought greater financial oversight to local authorities and enshrined in law the right of councils to consult with local communities. City and County Development Boards were established, along with Corporate Plans and Corporate Policy Groups. Section 140 allowed the elected members to direct the Manager to do a particular act, matter or thing specifically mentioned in the resolution and which the local authority or the manager concerned can lawfully do or effect, to be done or effected in the performance of the executive functions of the local authority. This controversial overused function replaced the Section 4s from the old 1955 City and County Management Act. Section 147 allowed the Minister to limit the term of office of a City or County Manager. A Public Register of Interests was introduced for senior staff and elected members.

I feel that the current Register is in adequate. Given the close ties between electives representatives and the sale of land we need to have a fully water tight register. These slides show that several members of Mayo County Council give their business addresses at auctioneering firms as their contact point as councillors. I believe we need clear blue water between ones interests as a councillor and one’s business interests.

Figure 3. Contact Details for Councillor Cyril Burke on Mayo County Council Website

Figure 3. Contact Details for Councillor Cyril Burke on Mayo County Council Website

I also feel the register of interests should cover debts and loans. All of us who operate in public life are aware of this challenge, myself included given that I am an architect and a planner. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, although I always had some sympathy for her. She was actually his second wife, and also bore the burden of her first name which was Pompeii. That perhaps is a story for another gathering, but the substantive point remains, which is that we need stronger ethics regulation in local government.

Section 185 of the 2001 Act established Town Councils, replacing what were previously known as Town Commissioners.

In 2008 my colleague the then Minister for the Environment John Gormley published a Green Paper on Local Government. This was underpinned by the principle of subsidiarity that is allowing decision making to be handled at the ‘lowest’ appropriate level and proposed a directly elected Mayor for Dublin, as well as in other local authorities. That Government fell as the Mayoral legislation was under consideration by the Oireachtas.

As I set out to discuss the current local government bill I want to put my cards on table and say that believe in greater devolution of powers downwards, and I believe strongly in the principle of directly elected mayors.

If you elect a Rob Ford as they did in Toronto you can kick him out at the next election. You might get lucky and have a mayor like Pasqual Maragall who brought the Olympic Games to Barcelona and masterminded that city’s economic, cultural and social renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s.

So, let’s take a look at the 2013 Local Government Reform Bill. The bill was introduced as the Local Government Bill 2013; the word “Reform” was inserted into its title at committee stage by the select subcommittee on the Environment, Community and Local Government. It has ten parts, and the substantive elements are as follows:

Part 1 contains the usual collection of preliminaries and general pronouncements. It gives significant powers to the Minister for the Environment to make regulations.

Part 2 deals with local government areas and local authorities. Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford face amalgamations that are locally controversial, but that appear eminently sensible when viewed from Dublin, or Kilkenny. I note that a senior Planning Advisor within the Government has stated that we are still a GAA country.

Figure. 4 GAA Counties

Figure. 4 GAA Counties

By implication any interference with County boundaries would be fraught, and this appears to underlie the proposed changes. However there is an increase in the number of councillors on urban councils that goes some way to addressing the current over-representation of councillors in councils that have smaller populations. Dublin City goes from 52 to 63 members for a population of 525,383 or a councillor for every 8,339 people.  Louth will have 29 members for a population of 122,897 or a councillor for every 4,238 persons. This represents a move towards greater alignment of population and number of representatives. Curiously Cork City remains untouched in this shake-up. Many of the new Councillors will represent more people and larger areas than previously. The Leitrim challenge remains however 31,796 population and 18 councillors or one for every 1766 people Dublin City with a population of 525,383 residents will have 63 councillors or one for every 8339 people. That is almost five times as many councillors as Dublin proportionally speaking.

The proposal in Part 3 of the Bill provides for the making of Municipal Districts and the dissolution of town councils. This is a significant change. I explain it using a fried egg analogy, not omelette I hasten to add, as I note Minister Hogan was talking about omelettes in the context of Irish Water yesterday

Figure 5. Fried Eggs

Figure 5. Fried Eggs

Currently the yolk of the egg is governed by a town council at a local level whereas the entire fried egg is controlled by the county council. Once the bill is passed the ‘yolk authority’ faces the chop and county councillors elected for the full county (or egg) will divide into municipal districts for the purposes of decisions affecting the yolk. The intention is to overcome the parochialism that may have affected smaller electoral authorities in the past. The Italians have a word for this ‘campanilismo’ which transliterates as ‘church towerness” or a positive light may represent civic pride. Section 15 radically alters the proportion of members for each electoral area giving a more even spread of councillors around the Country. This can only be a good thing.

Figure 6. Proposed Municipal Districts

Figure 6. Proposed Municipal Districts

Two years ago the then President of the Irish Planning Institute (IPI), Brendan Allen, stated at the National Planning Conference in Kilkenny that 88 planning authorities was too many. He felt that the decision-making arising from too many small planning authorities often results in poor decision-making in a national and regional context and a focus on ‘localism’. He went on to say that for planning purposes we need larger planning regions with greater power. Once the Bill is passed we will have 31 Planning Authorities (I stand to be corrected on this) so this will be a significant reduction.

Part 4 (Section 27) states that “It shall be the duty of the relevant local authorities and their staff to cooperate with each other It shall be the duty of the relevant local authorities and their staff to cooperate with each other and generally to exercise their functions so as to facilitate the implementation of this Act.”, a curious insertion that I suspect illustrates the tension that the amalgamations in particular will bring. This Part also prepares for the 2014 local authority elections.

Part 5 deals with the challenge of balancing different levels of commercial rate that need to be adjusted post-amalgamation. This has to be achieved with ten years.

Part 6 covers the dissolution of City and County Development Boards and establishes Local Community Development Committees consisting of the Local Authority Chief Executive, councillors, community interests and others listed in Section 35.  The old Boards were to bring about the more coordinated delivery of publicly funded services at local level in the areas of economic, social and cultural development. They have acted as the key co-ordinating body at local level in bringing together the relevant local stakeholders, providing joined-up services and opportunities for collaborative projects.  The new Committees will develop, coordinate and implement a coherent and integrated approach to local and community development. They will prepare and adopt a 5 year ‘Local and Community Plan’ that shall be consistent with the core strategy and the objectives of the development plan. It also has to address sustainable development and social exclusion. It has to be adopted by the Municipal District members.

Part 7 sets up a new Strategic Policy Committee that shall consider “economic development and matters connected to the promotion of, including support for, enterprise, and to advise the authority on those matters.” This Committee may request the attendance of a public authority at a meeting of the committee. I suspect Irish Water will be in the firing line. This Part of the Bill also allow the Local Authority to promote the interests of the local community including  social, environmental, recreational, cultural or community development,  as well as enterprise and economic development. They are doing this anyway in most cases but this I guess copper-fastens their powers in this area. County Managers get a name change becoming Chief Executive. The Chief Executive must carry out all lawful instructions, and get a second opinion if necessary. This was also a requirement under the 2001 Act.

Part 8 allows for a budgetary plan for the municipal district each year, thus stressing their importance within the Local Authority. It also states that a schedule of proposed works of maintenance and repair to be carried out during the financial year in each municipal district shall be prepared. This part of the bill also establishes a National Oversight and Audit Commission that will scrutinise the performance of any local government body against or in comparison with any indicator. It has fairly wide-sweeping powers.

Part 9 sets up to Regional Assemblies for co-ordinating, promoting or supporting strategic planning and sustainable development. They are also charged with promoting effectiveness in local government and public services, in different areas of the State. They are not directly elected.



Figure 7. Existing Regions

Figure 7. Existing Regions

They replace the current Regional Authorities and their functions include the making of regional planning guidelines under the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2013. They also may be delegated functions by the Minister in connection with assistance from the European Union, with national investment programmes, or with the role of the National Oversight and Audit Commission. The Local Authority Strategic Policy Committees have to have regard to the spatial and economic strategy of the appropriate regional assembly.

Figure 8. Proposed Regional Assemblies

Figure 8. Proposed Regional Assemblies

Lacey states that:

“Composition of proposed Regional Council of two members per county seriously militates against urban areas and is fundamentally undemocratic. It is bad for democracy and bad for the Irish people. Such figures would not be acceptable in the Dáil and should not be acceptable at Local Government level. Representation on these Councils should be proportionate to population with a minimum number of representatives being two and rising accordingly.”

I share his concerns and feel that Dublin’s interests will be emasculated by councillors from the eight other counties in the new Eastern Region, what I would term the commuting counties.

There is an enormous missed opportunity to co-ordinate regions over different Government Departments as it creates widespread confusion at all levels. Here’s a sample of some of the regions that we use, and it’s a pity that the opportunity was not taken to address this in the Bill




Figure 9. Various Irish Regions


Part 10 provides for a forum representative of the members of the local authorities within the Dublin metropolitan area to consider the possible options for the future local governance arrangements for that area including the establishment of an office of a directly elected mayor.


It’s not exactly a sweeping endorsement of the Principle of a directly elected mayor, and the costs of holding such a plebiscite will fall on the four Dublin Local Authorities. I believe that the centre of local authority power will remain with the Department of the Environment, in a first floor room in Dublin’s Custom House.

I strongly believe that if more powers were devolved it would attract more capable people to serve in local authorities as elected representatives, and local development would experience a renaissance.

Various schedules attached to the bill allow for existing local authority bylaws to be maintained such as the Dublin Corporation bylaws relating to “The prevention of danger from whirligigs and swings and from the use of firearms in shooting ranges and galleries” will continue to have effect. Local Authorities dare I add, should be doing more than regulation whirligigs.

So what do we have? In Part 2 there is some sensible, but I would suggest sensible but cautious amalgamations in Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary. Part 3 abolishes Town Councils and provides for their replacement by Municipal Districts – an interesting development that may limit the parochialism tendency.

It also partially addresses the imbalances of councillors in densely and sparsely populated counties. Part 6 sets up Local Community Development Committees, a form of quango swapping in one sense, but certainly a move towards bringing these functions back into the fold of local government. These committees must prepare a Local and Community Plan. This could be interesting.  Part 7 allows for increased powers for the economic Strategic Policy Committee. Part 8 sets up a National Oversight and Audit Commission. Part 9 sets up the three new Regional Assemblies, and Part 10 grudgingly considers the idea of a Mayor for Dublin, maybe.

In conclusion I don’t believe that the Bill is revolutionary. It abolishes some Quangos and establishes new ones. It gives a stronger role to Councils in the making of economic plans which I welcome, but it creates new sprawling Regional Authorities that aren’t directly elected. This I believe is a significant missed opportunity. County Managers become Chief Executives, but I don’t see any radical change in their relationship to the elected representatives. The Bill slashes the amount of councillors in Ireland by about half, but does not achieve equity in the ratio of councillors to population. I predict that the Eastern Region will dangerously interfere with the economic driver of the State that is Dublin. I hope that the Bill will bring about the direct election of a Mayor for Dublin in five years time. Had my own Party’s legislation be enacted we would have had one next May. The Bill is cautious rather than revolutionary. I’m not convinced that it resolves the Limerick and Waterford City and County tensions. It certainly doesn’t sufficiently address the tensions and lack of civic leadership in the Dublin area.

It’s not exactly radical reform: many opportunities were missed, and the nettle of ground-breaking reform was not grasped. There is a sense of Groundhog Day about the whole initiative. We have seen similar cautious plans for reform in the past. I hope that the new Municipal Districts are successful, but the opportunity for devolving significant powers downwards was not taken.

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