Local Power For Local People

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binsMichael Taft

From top: bin collectionb; Michael Taft

In Ireland, what’s good for Donegal is decided in Dublin.

This must change.

Michael Taft writes:

Whenever one compares Irish government finances with that of other small open economies or Nordic countries, showing that we spend far less on public services, social protection and investment someone invariably comes back with: ‘we can’t trust our government to spend efficiently, or honestly, or at all’.

For those of us who believe in a strong social state, this is a challenge. If people are to accept higher levels of taxation to pay for higher levels of public services, they have to have confidence in state institutions – or at least have confidence those institutions are accountable to them.

So how do the other countries do it?

There is no one answer but the following may be a contributing factor: other European countries are far more decentralised than the Irish state.

The Irish state is one of the most centralised in Europe, fiscally speaking. The central government here spends the highest proportion of total government spending than almost any other EU country. In the EU-15, central government accounts for 54 percent of all government spending; in Ireland it accounts for 95 percent.

Another way of look at this is the amount that local government spending makes up.

Let’s compare ourselves with those high-spending Nordic countries.

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We can see how decentralised these other high-spending countries are – with Danish local government making up nearly two-thirds of total government spending (interestingly, Denmark is the highest spending state in the EU; the other countries are not far behind).

By contrast, Irish local government is weak, very weak.

So what do these other countries spend their money on through local government?

There are four main areas:

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On average, in the Nordic countries local governments are the main financial sources for health, education and recreation & leisure. In Ireland, on the other hand, local government plays a much diminished and, in the case of health, a non-existent role.

Even in social protection, Nordic local governments play a prominent role. It should be noted that the category of social protection is not just about cash transfers; it includes in-kind benefits – home-helps to elderly and disabled, transport services, assistance with funeral services for survivors, holiday camps for children, etc.

In short, the Nordic countries are characterised by highly decentralised systems where policies and financing are provided by governmental tiers that are arguably ‘closer to the people’. In Ireland, what’s good for Donegal is decided in Dublin.

Could this decentralised structure imbue more confidence in higher spending regimes? And what implications does it have for Ireland. Well, if the answer to the first is potentially yes, the implications for Ireland are not good.

There are volumes of reports on local government reform going back to the 1940s but local government remains  manager-centred. So what would a reformed local government look like?

It’s too big an issue to go into here but this is just a sampler:

Why do we have four local authorities in Dublin, rather than a Greater Dublin Council? Councillors could be elected along Dail constituencies and would be full-time – part-time councillors don’t have the resources or the time to hold the managerial system to account.

There would be an Assembly with full-time staff and support services with a number of centralised functions devolved to the council level.

Another lower, part-time tier could be established through local area councils (a Swords Council, a Blanchardstown Council, an Inner City Council) with powers devolved through the Assembly.

In the rest of the country, there would need to be an upscaling of city/county councils. We used to have eight regional authorities; recent reforms have reduced to these three. Formerly it was probably too many, now it’s too few.

These are largely toothless but they could be turned into larger full-time professional councils along the lines of a Greater Dublin Council. The current structure could remain but reformed to bring about even more local democracy (a Tralee Council, Letterkenny, Drogheda, Athlone).

But all this is predicated on the willingness of the political culture to engage in a radical decentralisation and, given our historically centralised state, this would be a big task. But it’s one that progressives should investigate.

[Note: it could be argued that Ireland is too small to have a decentralised system. Yet, Iceland and Luxembourg spend more money through local government than we do.]

If people felt that such institutions – being closer to home – were more accountable, then the prospect of developing a strong social state could gain momentum. And there’s another reason.

The Left doesn’t look like taking national power anytime soon with its divisions, fragmentation and low-vote.

However, there are many areas in the country where the Left could form a majority and show that it is capable of governing.

This could set up alternative sources of power and prove useful preparation for hopefully, one day, national hegemony.

It’s not as if others haven’t noticed how weak our local government is. The Council of Europe produced a damning report on Ireland’s excessive centralisation, lack of funding transparency and limited local powers.

Isn’t it about time we noticed, too?

Michael Taft is Research Officer with Unite the Union. His column appears here every Tuesday. He is author of the political economy blog, Unite’s Notes on the Front. Follow Michael on Twitter: @notesonthefront

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17 thoughts on “Local Power For Local People

  1. Joe Small

    Ireland is definitely over-centralised. However, given the quality of local politicians in Ireland and the structure in local government, I’m not sure its in any fit condition to assume more power.
    Also, over the past few decades, any attempt to give local government the revenue-raising powers it needed through, for example, water or property charges were fought tooth and nail by those on the Left. You can’t have it all your own way.
    I’m also not so sure about the Left has shown “it is capable of governing” when Dublin Council passes such pointless motions opposing the bombing of Gaza or fluoride in the water.

  2. Baffled

    The suggestion that having full time well-paid local councillors who would hold local authority management to account is a peculiar one given that our full time well-paid TDs are incapable of holding the HSE and other public bodies to account.

    On the Donegal example, given that two-thirds of the local property tax revenues the county spends is paid for by Dubliners, I see no issue with the capital having a say in its affairs. For more on this see here: http://www.budget.gov.ie/Budgets/2016/Documents/Review_of_Local_Property_Tax_pub.pdf

  3. Jake38

    All very reasonable, and I’ll buy more local control on spending as a superior way of providing services on one condition. That is, that public servants who are incompetent can be held to account and fired. What say you, Michael?

  4. ALisonT

    All very well but you could be sure Unite would object to the local taxes on individuals needed to fund this structure properly.

  5. TheQ47

    This headline is very prescient in Sligo at the moment, where, as a result of Central Government de-funding, Sligo County Council say that they’ll have to close one or maybe two of the County’s three libraries.

    1. Jake38

      I presume the lack of money is Sligo has no relationship to the squizillions Sligo County council paid in their failed bid to sue the owners of Lisaddell?

  6. 15 cent

    we dont have a government capable to implement any change, regardless of some change, but any change. they are shockingly incompetent in simple bread n’ butter tasks, they’re certainly in no state to actually improve. even if they wanted to.

  7. DubLoony

    Local politicians in this country were of such low calibre that good planning practice wet out the window, building on flood plains, houses all over the place, grubby deals done in car parks.

    Donegal is a great example – scattered housing development with villages & towns such low density as not being sustainable. Things like internet access, public transport, sustainable jobs not possible. They are in a death spiral of youth emigration, aging population and far too many dependent on social welfare.

    Nordic countries are populated by people who are more civic minded and politicians who are mature in their decision making.

    1. ahjayzis

      People aren’t born civic minded, you need an atmosphere of good governance and accountability. In short, you need to have a system worth respecting if you want people to respect it. And with systems of oversight and accountability. Which we’ve never had.

      Make the job of local councillor one that people other than the local gobshite want to have. Expand our local authority areas as he says, give them critical mass. Make governments out of them, make the job of local assembly member one of consequence, actually involve communities and citizens in the daily running and decision making and we might get more than the parish pumping publican interested.

      1. Kieran NYC

        Question – is there anything you don’t blame the government/the system for?

        The government is supposed to be in charge of peoples’ hearts and minds now? And if they’re selfish it’s the government’s fault? Jeebus wept.

  8. Fact Checker

    Michael

    Please give an example of where either preference for and/or willingness to pay for local services varies geographically in Ireland.

    You won’t find it.

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