Analysis

Monday 28 July 2014

Hard part for councillors – delivering Left's promises

Local Elections - Analysis

Paul Melia

Published 27/05/2014|02:30

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People before Profit Candidate from the Pembroke/South Dock (Dublin City Council) ward Sonya Stapleton celebrates her local election success at the RDS Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Until now, the public has voted based on what was promised during an election cycle.

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Assuming the Government goes its full term, when voters return to the polls in two years' time budgets will have been agreed and implemented at local level and the candidates will have learnt what it's like to govern rather than canvass.

Democracy needs a good shake-up every now and again and, if nothing else, this election has provided a wake-up call to the Government.

There's never been as many left-wing candidates elected to office, promising everything from home-building programmes to job creation, abolition of the property tax and water charges and an end to the bailout of bondholders.

Sinn Fein has councillors in every local authority, and is the largest party on the country's biggest – Dublin City Council – where it holds a quarter of all seats.

People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance are represented on the four Dublin authorities, and others too – Sligo, Wexford, Limerick and Cork City. A cadre of left-leaning independents are also dotted across the country.

Leaving aside the fact that councillors cannot revoke water charges or the property tax, they are still responsible for spending €6bn of taxpayer's money every year.

By the end of next November, they will have to agree the budget for 2015 and begin making good on their promises.

The first step will be forming alliances so election pledges can be delivered. Pragmatism will take hold, and plum roles carved up over the five-year term of the council between parties and loose alliances of Independents.

A triumvirate might see the position of mayor being shared around, with chairs of policy committees divvied up in return for agreeing policies and budgets.

Sinn Fein is the most seasoned in this regard, having already done so in South Dublin County Council. We can expect more of the same as the party begins its march towards the holy grail of holding national office.

Among the first decisions to be taken is what to do with the property tax. Councils have leeway to reduce or increase it by up to 15pc, but must decide by September 30 next.

Dublin City Council will be interesting to watch. A cut of 5pc for someone living in a home worth between €100,001 and €150,000 will give just €11.25 a year back – 21 cents a week.

The same cut for a property valued between €650,001 and €700,000 – not unheard of in Ranelagh, Dublin 4 and other upmarket areas – will reduce the annual bill by €60.75, prompting accusations that only the wealthiest are benefitting.

Given that Dublin City expects to collect almost €80m in the tax over a full year, the 5pc cut also means that €4m will have to be found in savings/cuts elsewhere to deliver on a reduction which could put as little as 21 cents into someone's pocket every week.

Those choices are stark – less money for libraries, parks and playgrounds.

Cuts in funding for fire services. Fewer building inspectors. Closing libraries.

The difference could be made up by increasing commercial rates, albeit at a time when many businesses are struggling, or pushing up development levies. That won't wash at a time when the Left is accusing of not having strong economic policies.

Councillors are also responsible for housing policy, including deciding who gets scarce public homes.

Their role in land zoning cannot be overstated, and they must also decide what charges should be levied on those seeking to develop homes or commercial space.

It's going to be a swift learning curve for many of the new councillors coming to power.

Only time will tell if they can deliver on their promises, or if it will remain business as usual.

Irish Independent

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