Dr Brid Quinn, University of Limerick


As someone whose personal roots are in community development and whose professional work focuses on politics and public administration I read with optimism, last year, the Programme for Government which set itself ambitious and unambiguous objectives for reform of local government.

We are committed to a fundamental reorganisation of local governance structures to allow for devolution of much greater decision-making to local people. We will give local communities more control over transport and traffic, economic development, educational infrastructure, and local responses to crime and local healthcare needs.’ (2011: 27).

But my optimism has been tempered and I fear we are continuing the ad hoc approach which has bedevilled previous attempts at reform and has gone for the low-hanging fruit. I await the Minister’s long-promised proposals for reform and hope he is going to be the harbinger of structured transformation. Today I want to provoke you to think about our local system and how it could be reformed and rebuilt.

Over the years, we have not lacked either understanding of the issues or ideas for comprehensive reform of local government. What has been lacking is the political will, public willingness and administrative wherewithal.

Despite the range of reform blueprints from Barrington to Brosnan our current local government system is flawed. It is flawed with regard to the 3 Fs: form, function and finance.  Historical institutional defects have combined with structural inadequacies, functional limitations, financial restrictions, public indifference, administrative caution and political disregard to embed a stagnant and stunted system of local government.

Before advocating strategies for reform, let us reflect on the reasons for conserving and augmenting local government. Local government serves democratic, developmental and delivery purposes. The local level acts both as a forum for democratic participation and as the carrier of political identity.

Therefore, any reform needs to reinforce the democratic salience of the local level, ensuring a scaffolding for active citizenship, providing an arena in which the policies affecting daily life can be debated and shaped and enabling citizens to hold elected representatives to account, a need highlighted in the Mahon Tribunal Report.

As the level at which government policies are actually implemented, the developmental and delivery roles of local government are critical. One of the virtues of local government, acknowledged by political scientists everywhere, is its awareness and understanding of local issues and its flexibility to respond to local needs and demands. In Ireland such responsiveness is crucial – the issues facing Donegal County Council are different from those confronting Dublin City Council while Cavan and Cork have very different needs.

Local government also has an operational/delivery role in that it delivers services which have been mandated nationally or selected locally. International research shows that local solutions developed by local communities through their local government tend to be the most efficient and effective way to achieve local and national policy priorities. A recent evaluation of the EU Urban II Community Initiative concluded that the impact of projects was in direct correlation with the level of local empowerment and ownership. All three raisons d’être for local government democracy, development and delivery are important and must underpin any reforms.

Calls for reform are rife. We have had a citizens’ assembly; a constitutional convention has just been sanctioned; there is strong support for a second republic and a vision for a flourishing society has recently been articulated by TASC. All these developments indicate dissatisfaction with the status quo. There is need for a serious and open debate on the value of local government, the values which underpin it and agreement on the type of multi-level governance that is appropriate for our country.

Such debate should lead to a cohesive reform action plan. [Questions which might be considered during that debate include the following: Does a country of less than five million people require thirty four major councils, eighty town councils, eight regional authorities and two regional assemblies as well as a pot pourri of governmental and non-governmental organisations? How can the representative and participative dimensions of local democracy be fruitfully linked? Should local politicians be policy-makers or people pleasers?  How should the juncture between central and sub-national levels be structured? How can resources be best used to ensure efficacy, equity and efficiency? How can national and local policies be aligned most effectively? What can we learn from the reform strategies which have been implemented elsewhere?]

Reform needs to begin with clarification of the purpose, role and functions of local government – the current opacity is part of the problem. The role of local government as an enabler of democracy has already been highlighted. Ireland’s centralised politico-administrative system has stifled local initiative and rendered local government insignificant for the citizenry. We have a system which makes local government subsidiary rather than a beacon of subsidiarity.

The range of specific functions assigned to local government in Ireland is much narrower than is the norm elsewhere – in most other jurisdictions local government has responsibility for transport, education, policing, health and social welfare. Here, local government is responsible for eight specific programme groups [1]. In addition to its specific functions, local government also has a vital role in the furtherance and delivery of national policies whether through mandate from the centre or through interaction with state agencies and local development bodies. However, this kaleidoscopic approach to policy implementation is sub-optimal and fragmented since roles and responsibilities are not clearly delineated. The soft approach to collaboration has resulted in lack of integration, duplication and inconsistency. Although previous reform efforts have diagnosed the problems and identified ways to streamline and co-ordinate delivery – there has been a failure to implement the reforms fully and to enforce the required changes of approach and mind-set. The potential of County/City Development Boards, for example, has never been reached, due I would argue to uneven buy-in by the various actors involved; reluctance to align the strategies of member organisations; the constrained executive powers of CDBs; their lack of co-ordinating authority; the failure to assign a strong leadership role to local authorities and the reluctance to oblige other state agencies and development bodies to conform to the agreed strategy. We should learn from this experience.

It is only recently that the Minister endeavoured to synthesise the economic development and employment creation roles of local authorities and link local authority roles to other endeavours in these spheres – we will wait and see how the new Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) evolve – will LEOs become forceful local lions to replace the Celtic Tiger or will they be toothless kittens?

Recently, Connect Ireland has been established to link entrepreneurs and enterprises overseas with job creators at home but one of the major flaws in our current governance system is the failure to connect IN Ireland!  We need to connect what already exists. The form of our local government system – its institutions and structures – requires streamlining. This requires change not only at local but also at national and regional levels.

The silo mentality which prevails at central level has been criticised by the OECD among others. The resultant lack of coherence means that local authorities have to deal with a plethora of departments and central bodies, thereby diminishing effectiveness for all. Poor horizontal co-ordination at both local and national levels is compounded by underdeveloped vertical co-ordination leading to a lack of joined-up government.  Similarly, the structures which have been put in place at regional level serve to further confuse. The diversity of regional designations in Ireland is ludicrous. For example, the regions designated for politico-administrative purposes such as planning and those for waste management, tourism, and industrial development do not have consistent boundaries. Linkages between regional bodies and both local and national government tend to be ad hoc and pragmatic rather than strategic. We have even failed to create a proper Dublin region while throughout the developed world, coherent city regions with consolidated services and integrated policies are the norm. Do we in Ireland think we are different?

Another fundamental issue is the role of our politicians. Do we want policy makers or personal fixers?  The clientilist, personalist model of representative government might have been appropriate in an era of limited literacy and elite education. Modernisation has altered the relationship between the representative and the represented, but our political culture and system of governance do not reflect such changes. Our politicians need to focus more on policy-making than policy-taking.

In his poem September 1913, W B Yeats was concerned about ‘’fumbling in the greasy till”. Almost a century later, the report of the Mahon Tribunal underlines the need to strengthen the ethical framework within which local politicians operate.  Attention should also be paid to our electoral system and decisions reached as to whether multi-seat constituencies are retained and whether a list system would be a worthwhile addition.  Reform is also needed to ensure that our political and electoral systems are structured so as to represent the diversity of Irish society in terms of social status, gender, ethnic origin etc. An initial and (I hope) interim step has been taken with the introduction of gender quotas to address the fact that only 17% of county/city councillors and 21% of town councillors are women. But such measures treat the symptoms rather than the disease.  The social composition of our local authorities is limited and does not reflect the cosmopolitan society that is Ireland in 2012.

As the debacles over the household tax illustrated, the financing of Irish local government is unsatisfactory. The reasons for this are many. As Minister Hogan reminded us recently “[b]y international standards, the revenue base of local authorities in Ireland is relatively narrow, with local authorities being disproportionately dependent on central government funding” (Dáil debates, June 28th 2012). This dependence has serious ramifications for the autonomy of councils. During the Celtic Tiger era local authorities’ dependence on the commercial sector (e.g. for rates and development levies) had grown significantly. Recession has slashed both commercial and central government sources of income leaving local authorities in dire financial straits. [Further pressure comes from the IMF/EU/ECB memorandum which in effect expects local authorities to become self-financing in the medium term.]

The lack of specific knowledge in many of the recent ‘debates’ relating to the household tax suggests little awareness of the realities of the cost of local government services.  In the much lauded Scandinavian systems, yes, citizens are involved in deciding how local revenues are spent but they are also contributing substantially to those revenues in the form of local taxation. Reform of the financing of local government will require a change of outlook by citizens as well as politicians and administrators.

We are not the only country reforming its system and there are lessons to be gleaned from elsewhere. With regard to the pace and organisation of reform the considered and co-ordinated approaches adopted in Finland and Perth, for example, have relevance.  Not for them a haphazard approach but an approach which sees local government reform as an integral part of re-ordering and connecting their politico-administrative systems. [Finland is engaged in the New Municipality 2017 Development Programme a schematized approach which will transform the local government system.  In Australia the quest for effective consolidation of the Perth city region is leading not only to re-configuration of local government units but also has State and Federal services on the agenda and a phased process of reform is underway. Denmark carried out a three-dimensional reform which included territorial reorganisation, reallocation of tasks across levels of government and reform of financing and equalization systems.] Post-devolution Scotland has enhanced the status and influence of local government in national policy-making [2].  England has had a rescaling of sub-national structures but analysts like Pearse & Ayers assess that “while localities are expected ‘to help themselves’, rather than ‘genuine’ localism England’s multiplicity of local authorities strikingly lack the political and economic autonomy necessary to pursue a coherent approach to territorial development” [3] (Pearse & Ayers, 2012) – we must avoid a similar ‘report card ‘ for Ireland.  We must take on board the lessons from elsewhere.

The problems are clear so how might the Irish system be reconstituted?  Reform and rebuilding require courage, serenity and wisdom – political courage to take a holistic rather than a populist perspective; serenity to accept that there are elements we should not change and the wisdom to undertake  a comprehensive reform that connects processes and structures both vertically and horizontally.  Local government cannot be viewed in isolation. I believe that the emphasis must be on ‘joining-up’ in order to achieve an integrated approach which connects the national, sub-national and (where relevant) the EU levels in a manner which ensures best use of public resources, effective service delivery and meaningful democratic involvement. In a nutshell – we need to align, define and assign competencies from Brussels to Brosna.

At national level we need clearly defined policies, effective linkages between departments and agencies, and service level agreements with those implementing policies at all levels. Policy-making needs to facilitate structured involvement of local authorities in spheres that affect the local level. A multi-annual budget for local government capital spending should be adopted rather than the current annual uncertainty.

At regional level – we need coherence. Sweeping reform could lead to the designation of 5 regions – 4 + Dublin. Or for simplicity and reduced costs we could transform the existing eight Regional Authorities. It has been hinted that the Minister is about to designate three regions. If that is the case, some questions arise.  How cohesive might such large regions be – in view of the failure to foster regional identity  and efficacy through the two existing mega-regions (SERA and the BMW)?  Is Dublin about to get the city-region recognition it needs?

Whatever the number of regions, members should be directly elected as recommended by Mahon, and specific policies such as  planning, transport, tourism and industrial development  should be organised  at this level. The radical (by Irish standards of ad hocery!) element of reform at regional level must be the synchronisation of the regional designation of all public bodies. This would enable strategic and coherent organisation and delivery of policies and services. Such coherent regional configuration would eliminate the current duplication, disjuncture and ‘service fatigue’ (In 2009 FÁS estimated that it had representatives on some 1,000 Committees [4]) and make better use of financial and personnel resources as well as enabling meaningful regional data to be collected and compared, thereby improving the evidence base for policies and services.

At local level we need reformed structures and finances so that local government is accorded AND accomplishes its rightful role.  Do we retain the county level (as advocated by ACCC) or strengthen the regional and sub-county levels in a cohesive way and eliminate the need for this level?  A radical approach to reform would remove the county level – as part of a comprehensive review of national, regional and sub-national structures. Alternatively, we could retain a reduced number of authorities as proposed by McCarthy, linking the configuration to the National Spatial Strategy. If we opt to retain county/city councils, their role and resources must be clear. The economic development role is already being championed by the Minister – but the role of local authorities is broader than economic development. Local government has a key part to play in promoting community wellbeing and social justice.

Following the debate suggested earlier, a number of issues should be decided. I float some ideas as provocation rather than prescription. How many local authorities? How should structures be realigned so as to achieve a more equitable councillor/population ratio and to incorporate the meso-municipality representatives advocated below? Leaders should be directly elected for this level and be given powers of initiative for budgets and strategic plans, for example. The electoral system might be reformed so as to incorporate a list system. The relationship between managers and councillors needs reassessment to achieve a balance between civic leadership and civic management and would require reformulation if we opt for directly elected leaders.

We also need what might be described as ‘political process re-engineering’ so that our politicians spend their time making policies rather than advocating unnecessarily for their voters. To enable this we need to upgrade our citizen information centres so that they provide the information and linkages for which citizens now rely on politicians.

Local authorities need stable and sustainable sources of funding, with increased local financial responsibility but also increased local discretion, not just the decentralisation of penury or illusory cost-shifting. To enable local authorities to implement a financial plan for achieving their objectives, a range of revenue sources is required.  The nettle of local taxation needs to be grasped but issues such as equalisation between local authorities with different resource bases need to be addressed before committing to any particular taxation system. Revised funding will involve a combination of local taxation and charges, development levies and grants from central government.

As it currently operates, local government is imperfect so change is needed. To achieve a system of responsive, responsible and representative local government we need clarity on the purpose and role of local government, capacity for action at the local level, cohesiveness in central-local interaction, committed leadership at both levels, community involvement, citizen engagement and continuity in our reform strategy.  As citizens, let us engage in the process of reform rather than be enraged by the deficiencies of the current system, thereby ensuring that by 2016 we have a joined-up system.


[1] Housing and building; road transportation and safety; water supply and sewerage; development incentives and controls (planning); environmental protection; recreation and amenities;  (aspects of) agriculture, education, health and welfare and miscellaneous services.

[2] McGarvey, N. (2012), Expectations, Assumptions and Realities: Scottish Local Government Post-Devolution. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 14: 153–174

[3] Paper presented to PSA conference, Belfast , April 2012.

[4] Interim Report of the Local Government/Local Development Alignment Group, December 2011


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