Three Key Issues Relating to Local Government Reform in Ireland


Dr Proinnsias Breathnach, NUI Maynooth

Chris van Egeraat and Seán Ó Ríordáin have made far too much of the Local Government Bill, which is a very weak and ineffectual piece of legislation derived, in turn, from the foregoing Action Programme for Effective Local Government, an appallingly inept document which goes nowhere near doing what it says on the tin.  To discuss the Local Government Bill on its own terms is to allow ourselves to become enmeshed in minor issues of the kind which have dominated the so-called “debate” on local government reform in Ireland over the last 50 years.  This plays right into the hands of those powerful and entrenched forces which are profoundly opposed to meaningful reform in this area.The Minister for the Environment and Local Government has used the term “radical” to describe his proposed reforms.  They are nothing of the sort, as they fail to address any of the three key issues relating to the reform of local government in this country.  These are:

  1. What are the appropriate powers and functions of local government?
  2. How are these functions funded?
  3. What is the appropriate territorial configuration for the execution of these powers and functions?

The answers to these questions are, somewhat ironically, very clearly stated in Chapter 1 of the aforementioned Action Programme, as encapsulated in the following extracts (under the heading “Rationale for strong local government”):

  • There is a compelling rationale for an effective system of local government, as distinct from purely “local administration” (whereby services are provided through locally-based staff of central organisations or where local authorities act as mere agents of central government).
  • Local democracy is an essential component of a robust system of representative democracy…Local government involves more than service delivery. Democratic representation and oversight are important elements and local political leadership and oversight can bring greater accountability and responsiveness to local needs than is likely in the case of bodies that operate solely as agents of centralised organisations.
  • A system of local government that is largely representational and lacking significant functions and responsibilities will, however, be hollow…Local authorities therefore…must have substantial functions and responsibilities.
  • It is appropriate…that elective local government should have a reasonable degree of devolved decision making capacity over a wide range of relevant public affairs and services, subject to adequate accountability and, critically, financial responsibility, underpinned by effective governance…
  • Services that are largely local in character are more effectively dealt with and produce outcomes best suited to local needs if locally devolved rather than centrally controlled. A positive performance dividend, in terms of enhanced commitment, initiative and care, can be gained from local decision-making and the sense of “ownership” and local “ambition” which it can promote. The quality of local services can also be enhanced by being informed by awareness of local needs, priorities and circumstances.
  • Rebalancing of responsibilities from central to local government can improve efficiency by reducing duplication and process associated with centralised supervision and by enabling central government to concentrate more on national issues and strategic policy matters.

However, as is unfortunately rather typical of official discussion documents of this kind (and indicative of the lack of robust discourse of public policy issues in Ireland), the remainder of the document proceeds to totally ignore these powerful arguments, as does the forthcoming legislation.  While there is a morass of detail on rearranging existing functions at local level, not one function of any significance is to be devolved to local government under the proposed legislation.  This contrasts with the fact that the present government has already removed several functions from local government – most importantly, responsibility for the public water supply, but also the administration of vocational education, the higher education grants system (with disastrous results) and the issuing of driving licences.  So much for the commitment included in the 2011 Programme for Government “to a fundamental reorganisation of local governance structures to allow for devolution of much greater decision-making to local people.”  We can see here how genuine the government’s stated commitment to local government reform really is.

Returning to the three key issues surrounding local government reform set out above, in most European countries local government provides a wide range of functions, including the delivery of many (if not most) public services such as education, health, various welfare services (including for the unemployed, disabled, youth, the elderly), public transport and economic development.  The growth in the range and depth of such services resulted from the emergence of welfare states throughout western Europe following the second world war, and governments reckoned from an early stage that these services could be most effectively delivered at local level – for reasons eloquently stated in the extracts from the government’s own Action Programme set out above.  By contrast, the range of public service functions performed by local government in Ireland is extremely narrow and has been progressively eroded by central government since the foundation of the state.

Locally-provided public services should also be locally funded as much as possible, as this creates a clear link for citizens between the taxes they pay and the services they get in return.  This in turn maximises accountability on the part of local authorities for efficent and effective service delivery.  In Sweden, almost all public services are delivered locally and are paid for mainly from income tax which is paid directly to local government (which in turn accounts for the bulk of all income tax paid).  There is nothing in the Local Government Bill on the funding of local government.

As regards the territorial configuration of local government, perhaps the most widely-discussed element in the Local Government Bill is the proposal to abolish town councils and the subdivision of county councils into municipal districts.  According to Van Egeraat and Ó Ríordáin, this reflects “a municipal form of government more in line with European models.“  This is certainly not the case.  European local government is based on a very simple and very sensible set of principles designed to maximise ease of access of citizens to public services (and vice versa).  Most people’s lives are conducted within the bounds of towns and their surrounding hinterlands (from which workers, shoppers, school students and users of public services commute to the central towns).  Almost universally in Europe, these spatial units (town and hinterland) comprise the basic unit of local government – the municipality or commune – through which most public services are delivered.  Higher level public services, such as hospitals, universities and regional planning, are normally sited in the main regional cities which have their own, more extensive, hinterlands composed of combinations of surrounding local municipalities.  These structures correspond to those of private service provision which in turn are designed to maximise accessibility and consumer convenience.

In Ireland, by contrast, the primary units of local government are the counties which occupy an intermediate position between the local/municipal and the regional level.  They comprise a classic “Irish solution to an Irish problem” i.e. they are neither here nor there, and solve nobody’s problems.  They are medieval constructs with little relevance to the spatial organisation of Irish society which is built around local towns and regional cities.  Instead of moving towards a European-style (and sensible) system, the Local Government Bill moves in the opposite direction, stripping away the meagre range of functions which some towns possessed (albeit involving boundaries which cut them off from their hinterlands) and creating a regional structure even more anaemic and meaningless than that which preceded it.

Some see the creation of sub-county municipal districts as a move in the right direction, and acceptance of the idea of combining towns and their hinterlands is indeed welcome.  However, the crudity with which at least some of these districts have been delineated may indicate how seriously they are being taken.  And of course county boundaries cut through the functional hinterlands of many towns in Ireland. The municipal districts will have no statutory functions under the Local Government Bill, and will inevitably perform the rather marginal function of the current Local Area committees while real power (and councillors’ focus) will reside in the county council chamber and offices.

Ultimately the main problem is the continuation of the counties – highly variable in size and population – as the main unit of local government.  The Action Programme for Effective Local Government devotes a considerable amount of space to presenting arguments – most of them contentious, flawed and forced – for the abolition of town councils, but presents no corresponding arguments of any kind for the retention of the county councils.  This is as intellectually dishonest as the commitment to devolution in the Programme for Government is politically dishonest.

We need to see the Local Government Bill for what it really is i.e. a means of saving some money in the short term by reducing the numbers of councillors (already low by European norms) and merging some institutions.  Local government reform along European norms would be much more cost-effective in the long term, but the Irish political process does not operate with a long-term mindset.  Talk about real local government reform in Ireland is futile as it is profoundly opposed by both the central bureaucracy (and Ireland has one of the most centralised and powerful bureaucracies in the western world) and our Dáil denizens who would find their primary raison d’être being undermined were the delivery of public services to be devolved to the local level. Given the poverty of public policy discourse in Ireland and the lack of countervailing forces, this situation is not going to change.

3 thoughts on “Three Key Issues Relating to Local Government Reform in Ireland

    • @Donal,

      I would like to second your approval of this piece. It is both refreshing and unusual to read such an incisive critique and diagnosis on this site. But the despair palpable in the final paragraph is profoundly depressing. I suppose we should be happy that there is no evidence that Irish voters are disposed to express their discontent by fostering the emergence and strengthening of right-wing, europhobic, xenophobic, chauvinistically nationalist parties as many voters throughout the EU are. But it is evidence of lethargy and inertia. Perhaps it is an expression of the relative comfort of a majority and the sullen resignation (or exit) of the uncomfortable minority.

      The traditional left-wing, statist, selectively collectivist, market-scorning rhetoric retains some popular appeal – and may attract some increased support in the current environment, but the majority of citizens have rejected it. The vehicles to channel public discontent and to implement the required changes in democratic governance do not appear to exist in Ireland.

      And the discontent is real. It will be expressed. The forthcoming European Parliament elections at the end of next May are likely to have a profound impact on politics in the EU.

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