Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Big Phil's latest missed opportunity

I was recently watching an old episodes of Yes, Prime Minister where the topic of local government reform came up. Hacker initially thinks that it is a great idea, Sir Humphrey obviously takes the opposite point of view. Add a militant socialist councillor and the usual confusion from Bernard and by the end of it Hacker is bamboozled into reversing his position. (Full recap here.). After today's announcement of Local Government reform by Phil Hogan, one has to wonder if a similar scene has played out over the last year or so in the Custom House.
After years of neglect, cuts in funding, cuts in services and cuts in power held by locally elected representatives, local government in Ireland was prime for transformation. Similar to how Telecom Eireann skipped about 3 generations of technology in their modernisation in the late 80s and early 90s, we could have catapulted Ireland's local government regime to the top of the class. We could have skipped various failed models tried in other countries and built a best-of-breed system fit for the 21st Century - local issues being decided by local reps and paid for by locally raised taxes.
Instead we see a continued assault on local democracy in the name of "savings". Sure we currently have too many county, borough and town councils for the activities that they are permitted to carry out. But is putting more and more of that power into the hands of unelected and unaccountable officials in the councils or the Department of Environment really a good idea? We have only recently seen the mess the officials have made of waste in Dublin with both the incinerator and the Greyhound privatization despite the countless votes against both actions by the elected representatives.
In my ideal world local government should have responsibility for the following
  • Commercial and Domestic Waste - service can be part or fully privatized but the terms should be set locally
  • Mains and Waste Water - collective operations with neighbouring councils for economies of scale
  • Primary and Secondary Education - how many, what size, where and what ethos (or preferably secular)
  • Community Policing - big ticket items like fraud, drugs, murders etc dealt with nationally but local authority should be able to "purchase" additional policing above a base line
  • Zoning - drawing up the development plan for the county/city but then leaving the individual planning to the professionals under a certain threshold
  • Local taxation - property, sales, hotel bed whatever. Local funds raised from local community
One good proposal is the power for each local authority to set property taxes in their area. However, we still have to see if the property taxes raised will actually flow in full to the authority in which they are raised. I am still dubious that there won't be a transfer from urban to rural to ensure the continuation of a library in Clare or a fire service in Leitrim. Secondly, no timescale for this devolution has been given - this is a matter for government according to the Minister. But isn't he part of the government? Couldn't he have included a timetable in his major announcement today?
On a practical note, when you exclude the town/borough councillors, the number of councillors will actually increase from 883 to 950. Assuming that there is some rebalancing of councillor numbers in line with population, it means that Dublin City Council is likely to increase in number from the current 52 to somewhere around 70 members, with similar increases in the other Dublin councils. From a very parochial point of view, it means the extended Dublin South East (sorry Bay South) is likely to now return 12 and so we could see the formation of two 6-seaters or three 4-seaters.