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Overworked, older and mostly male: Ireland has Europe’s weakest local government

Councillors lack the power and the funding to meet the needs of a rapidly changing and more diverse Irish society

Local elections take place in the 31 local authority areas of this State on June 7th, along with European Parliament elections and the first vote for a new mayor of Limerick. But although localism defines its political culture, research shows Ireland has paradoxically the weakest, most underfunded system of local government with the least power and authority of any country in Europe.

The councillors elected in the 26 county, three city and two county and city areas will represent 5,196 citizens per councillor, compared to 600 in Belgium, 620 in Spain and 412 in Finland. In France one councillor represented 118 citizens in 2002, in Austria 209, Sweden 256, while in Ireland the figure was 2,336. The abolition of 83 town councils here in 2014 severely increased the representation ratio.

So the councillors are overworked. Seventy-six per cent are, in addition, predominantly older and higher-income white, Irish-born males – just when so many of the social needs and demands of a rapidly changing and more diverse Irish society would be better served by local care, welfare, health and education services run and overseen democratically much more by younger women – and funded and spent more visibly there by local taxation.

Councillors have access to only 3 per cent of overall Irish tax revenue raised at local level, compared to an average of 15 per cent elsewhere in Europe. The overall tax revenue spent at local level is 8 per cent compared to an EU average of 23 per cent. In Denmark the figure is 64 per cent. Property taxes, similarly, compare on a 2 per cent to 7 per cent ratio; Irish property tax was centralised and now does not return to local level evenly or predictably. Only rates on local commercial properties stay there.

Councillors lack power compared to executive managers in Irish local government, having seen their legislative initiative and autonomy stripped out at national and local levels over many decades. Theresa Reidy of UCC describes this as “a deep hollowing-out of the role of local government”, in which health, education and water clearly show the mismatch between official narratives of form and actual function. The last round happened during the 2008-2014 financial crisis which centralised, privatised and outsourced many functions, thereby impoverishing Ireland’s local democracy as well.

These figures are drawn mostly from expert evidence given to and deliberated on by the Citizens’ Assembly on a Dublin mayor and local governance in the city which reported last year. It recommended that a mayor be appointed accountable to the four local authorities there. It voted for substantial relocalisation of powers and functions in education, childcare, primary and community healthcare, public transport and local policing away from central government. Climate action can be added to the list.

This would be in line with good practice elsewhere in Europe, as recommended last October by a scathing report from the local and regional congress of the Council of Europe, its most authoritative voice.

After a monitoring visit it recommended that Irish authorities transfer additional functions to local authorities, continue with reforms of the executive and elect members of regional assemblies directly; introduce a system of formal and regular consultations between central and local government; enhance democratic control over the internal administrative structure of local government; reduce administrative supervision; increase the amount of own resources that can be used at the discretion of local government and increase the share of non-earmarked grants.

All this matters greatly for the quality and scope of government and democracy in Ireland. Local democratic control of expanding governing functions and taxation needed by a growing and more equal society is an essential ingredient of political change here. But it is rarely articulated by political parties, which see local elections as vehicles towards national politics. That only encourages the clientelism and personalism often used to discredit local government.

The sector needs to be transformed if such changes are to be made. Transforming institutional structures was discussed at a stimulating gathering of academics and senior public service people in Maynooth University recently. Institutions can get stuck in an inertia which paralyses necessary changes in policymaking.

A politician in attendance made the good point that we can’t expect policy to do something politics is not prepared to do. However, critical studies and discussions such as these demonstrate how comparatively out of line actual practice is, showing this creates structural and political blindness to problems – which suits the status quo.

We heard how European governments dismantled state capacities in recent decades of neoliberal globalisation and austerity. They are now taking a more normative, directional, multilevel and flexible turn to deal with new climatic, demographic and technological challenges.

In Ireland we need to radically relocalise an expanding State to deal with these challenges effectively.

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