LOCAL GOVERNMENT REFORM HAS HUGE POTENTIAL TO HAVE IMPACT
Dr Eoin O’Malley, Lecturer in Irish Politics at School of Law & Government, DCU
Since coming to office last year the government has spent some time and energy on the subject of political reform. The referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries was just one of the more high profile of a range of initiatives which seem, on the face of it, genuine reforms moving in the right direction.
However, the reforms have lacked a strategic or unified vision. Some appear ill-thought through. There are a large number of reforms, but it is not clear how they hang together, or complement one another, if indeed they do. They don’t seem to be based on a clear analysis of the problems underlying the Irish political system. Perhaps this is because there is no single minister or body charged with the reform agenda. But it does appear that it’s deliver ‘reforms’ come-what-may.
Do we just think we need some reforms to satisfy the need for an intervention in the same way people with the ‘flu go to a GP? The intervention will make no substantive difference, but we somehow feel better for it.
We are often susceptible to making mistakes of logic when we analyse the effectiveness of public policies. Public policy responses often take place after an extraordinary event, or series of events. Because of this we demand a policy response. Last week I heard a radio interview in which a TD exclaimed that all the crime statistics in the world could be cited to him (which showed that crime was generally in decline), but he wanted a response to the serious crimes that had taken place in the previous few days!
When, after the policy intervention, if the problem appears to allay somewhat, we often assume that the policy intervention was decisive. We do not consider that there was what is called ‘regression to the mean’. So if there is an acute rise in car accidents in one year, we might respond in some way, say setting up a new ‘taskforce’. The rise might have just been a spike, and the number of accidents naturally goes back to a more normal level in time, but we think the ‘taskforce’ did it. Only by using experiments through pilot studies can we say if the intervention was actually important.
We might end up seeing the same phenomenon of ‘regression to the mean’ at work in political reform. We had a massive failure of public policy. If (as is likely) we don’t observe massive failures in the next decade (these things only come around every 30 years or so) we might feel the government’s response has addressed those systemic failures. But we shouldn’t necessarily think that the political reforms we have seen or are in the pipeline will be effective; we might just be storing up trouble for a few decades when the next crisis erupts.
I can sympathise with ministers’ impatience to start getting things done. When changing a political system is so hard, it makes sense to at least make a start on some reforms – indeed it might make further changes easier. But if we end up with just one plank in a raft of reforms, the whole vessel might flounder without the other reforms to support the first. For this reason leaving the whole reform agenda to a Constitutional Convention, forced to report within a year, might have been a better approach, and could have taken party politics out of the debate.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT REFORM
One of the areas which has not featured much in the debate on political reform is Local Government (or maybe we should say local administration as there is virtually no local control or influence of local policy in Ireland). Phil Hogan has initiated some reform in the decisive way he dealt with the boundaries of LimerickCity. But beyond this we see little in the reform agenda that relates to the local government. If anything, the most interesting potential reform, directly-elected mayors, has been pushed to long grass.
This is despite that many people say that local government is important. It makes sense that it would be important. If we look at what is wrong with the political system, it is often said that TDs haven’t done their job as national legislators and they concentrate on the needs of the local constituency to the detriment of national issues. This is possibly driven by necessity. If local policy is not made locally, then citizens sensibly go to national politicians to deal with their problems.
If we were to give power over local issues back to local authorities, then constituents would instead contact their local authorities and leave TDs to do their job as legislators.
A problem with this analysis is that of the issues that TDs report as the most commonly brought to them in constituency clinics, housing allocation, which is the preserve of local authorities, tops the list. Other TDs report that during the economic bubble requests for assistance on planning permission came to them on a daily basis. So constituents contact TDs even when the TD has no special access or formal power in the area. And the TDs, unlikely to tell a constituent to ask someone else, take up the case that should be the preserve of local councillors. Especially now that electoral competition within parties is so strong, TDs are probably reluctant to disabuse citizens of the notion that they can be of assistance. Giving local authorities more power won’t necessarily stop the TDs getting involved in local issues.
TDs may be so anxious to help constituents because they have little real impact on national policy. Most Dáil debates have no effect, and are more a signalling exercise to voters and to the media to take them seriously as politicians. So they get involved in areas that they think can have an impact, which might only be to ensure that constituents get access to services to which they are already entitled.
But even if devolving more power to local government is not going to magically change the behaviour of TDs, we might want to give more power to local authorities for other reasons; not least because they might be in a better position to make good decisions for their local areas.
What do we want local government to do? As with all government, we want them to make people’s lives better. And local government has huge potential to have an impact on people’s lives – arguably even more than central government. This is because it controls much of what affects our daily lives – the environment in which we live. Think of the effect when it goes wrong, as it did in Galway when people were forced to queue up for water.
Although the measurement is the subject of some controversy, there is some agreement that in already rich countries, such as ours (and we should not lose sight of the fact that Ireland is still remarkably wealthy), money is less important in achieving greater happiness than factors such as strong communities.
Really simple things, such as well-designed urban spaces, can have an enormous impact on our lives. Just the addition of trees to a streetscape makes the street much more pleasant (and has health and other social benefits). Urban areas with good transport links, shops, public buildings, parks and playgrounds are much nicer places to be, and make people happier. Car-dependent cities with dying centres and out-of-town shopping centres (and indeed out-of-town university campuses) do not.
So what type of local government reform would give us a better environment and make us happier?
One aspect of local government reform that the host of reports agree on is that local authorities lack autonomy. They link this lack of autonomy to the structure of finance. Most money comes directly from central government and is just used to administer centrally-decided policies. Even locally-raised revenue is not for the authorities to spend as they will.
So if you want to make local authorities powerful, you do so by giving them some sort of tax raising powers. But do we really want to do this? Certainly not without some radical overhaul of the structure of local government.
Where we see local authorities do have an ability to set taxes, in the form of business rates, some local authorities have a tendency to treat businesses as a cash cow. And because local authorities are small in size they can’t really control how a region is planned or will grow. An example of this is Limerick city, which has high business rates, but covers an area that is not contiguous with what is actually the city (parts of Limerick city are in Co. Clare). Businesses escape the high rates by moving to the suburbs, where other councils are happy to accommodate them, but have no interest in how the city grows. A policy response should be to put a charge on parking in out-of-town shopping centres. This tax, unlike other taxes, such as the Household Charge gives people a choice; one can change behaviour and avoid the tax. Yet the city corporation charges people to park in the city (mainly because it can) without ever considering the implications of such a policy. It cannot benefit from charges to those shopping outside its area, but the city can be damaged by it. The result is that Limerick city-centre is dying.
Cities and towns also need to think about what they provide for people. They are more than just shopping centres that we can drive through. The way people shop has changed radically in the last ten years and will change even further, so we cannot expect cities to be just retail spaces. To keep urban areas alive we need to ensure that city centres have amenities such as hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, schools, colleges, cinemas and museums.
But what reform of local government will ensure that authorities have control over their medium and long-term growth and an incentive to think about the people who live there? The current manager system does not offer this. What it is meant to be good at – technical competence and a bulwark against patronage and corruption – has not been delivered. Regular flooding points to incompetence in planning, and it is an open secret that many planning officials were biddable.
If we look at some of the better developments in Dublin, it was where someone or some group have a clear remit to consider the whole development. The standard planning model is demand-driven rather than plan driven. Notwithstanding some issues of governance, the Dublin Docklands Development company produced an urban quarter that is good to look at, pleasant to live and work in, easy enough to get to and I suspect, one that has better withstood the ravages of the property bubble.
Urban sprawl has rendered irrelevant many of our historical local boundaries. While we might care about county boundaries in the All-Ireland championship, they’re not the basis on which we should design local government. County Councils are too small for effective decision-making in cities and too large for democratic decision-making in villages and towns.
There is a debate as to whether local government should be consolidated into large metropolitan or regional areas, or whether left fragmented to smaller local authorities they would successfully negotiate for the good of the whole area. It’s probably the case that we should not choose one or another. Some responsibilities, such as transport, are sensibly left to large areas. Others, like whether to allow certain types of businesses in an area or the location of a playground, might be best decided at a neighbourhood level.
And given that many businesses/people make choices to locate on the basis of metropolitan area (rather than county) we all have an interest in the development of Dublin. An elected mayor might be the best way to push Dublin’s development, but only with appropriately-sized constituency and appropriate powers.
We need to think more carefully about local government reform. I’m not arguing that we should avoid local government reform, but we should avoid reform for the sake of it. We run the risk that any reform will do. But political reform isn’t like a placebo or the warm feeling we have when the GP says everything will be fine. Reforms have real effects, but sometimes these are a bit unpredictable, and potentially very big. Any reform won’t do.
Dr. Eoin O’Malley is co-editor of Governing Ireland: From Cabinet Government to Delegated Governance (IPA 2012).
 Eimear O’Leary (2011) ‘The Constituency Orientation of Modern TDs’ Irish Political Studies 26: pp. 329-344.