Sunday 21 December 2014

Dublin to miss out on the mayor it obviously needs

Our capital is crying out for an elected mayor, but the system won't allow it, writes Fionnan Sheahan

Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan at the Fine Gael National Conference in the South Court hotel in Limerick, yesterday.
Photo: Tony Gavin 12/10/2013
Environment Minister Phil Hogan

WITHOUT lifting a finger, Phil Hogan has probably killed off the prospect of Dublin getting a directly elected mayor. The proposal has been knocking around the political system for the best part of a decade in the wake of the success of the move in London.

Having a directly elected mayor is the norm in most major cities, particularly in Europe. An inferiority complex in this country determines that a capital city of over one million, out of an overall population of four million, means Dublin is not a major city.

Yet Dublin is battling on a daily level to attract jobs, tourism, education, talent and

investment with similar cities across Europe, which have a coherent plan in place to sell those locations – not their respective countries as a whole.

The argument about Dublin competing with the rest of the country is passé. A decade on from the much-vaunted National Spatial Strategy, regional growth is still imbalanced towards the east coast. Attempting to turn that tide is pointless at this stage, so it's time to play to the country's strengths.

Rather than abandoning the rest of the country, Dublin being viewed separately would allow a greater concentration on a policy-formulation level on the needs of the other areas of the country.

The regions outside of Dublin benefit from the capital city being a driver of the economy.

Dublin won't become stronger at the expense of the rest of the country; instead, it can draw business that otherwise wouldn't come here.

The argument put forward by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Oisin Quinn, in the report of the forum on the directly elected mayor, which he chaired, is that the focus on being internationally competitive is to the benefit of the country as a whole.

"It is felt that, both for the Dublin region itself and for promoting Dublin internationally, clear, strong, robust and accountable leadership is needed to drive the Dublin area in terms of economic development.

"Dubliners pay more than 50 per cent of national income tax paid in the State and Dublin businesses account for 60 per cent of national business taxes. Dublin needs to be able to adapt to compete effectively with competitor cities abroad, such as Copenhagen, Edinburgh and Barcelona."

Dublin's representatives feel that the city is not competing with other cities or towns in Ireland but is competing on an international stage.

It isn't up against Dingle, Birr or Castleblayney to get the next wave of Google, Facebook and Twitter-type companies to choose it as a location. It's fending off Helsinki, Lyon and Budapest.

Of course, the plan isn't perfect. The case for the value for money of placing another layer of bureaucracy in the system and the efficiency of duplicating existing functions already provided at a national level is less than clear cut.

The argument put forward is that there is "scope" for savings by consolidating 'under one roof' decision-making in relation to issues that affect Dublin. But the costs versus savings sums haven't been set out on a balance sheet yet.

There is also the risk of the election of a totally unsuitable candidate who then has a whole host of responsibilities which they deliver poorly. But that's called democracy.

Within the four existing local authorities in Dublin, there are differences of opinion over the precise details of the structure of the office.

The clear intention, though, is that the directly elected mayor would be a chief executive – not a chairman and not just the holder for a year of a chain of office. The buck would stop at the mayor's office for the delivery of a range of services.

The plan is a cross between the New York and the London mayoral models, where the mayor has genuine power.

The initial proposal would see Dublin being run by a special cabinet of directors who would have strong powers in areas such as transport, housing, planning, economic development – and even a role in policing.

Appointed by the mayor without necessarily being politicians or public servants, the management team would be responsible for delivering these services.

A series of State bodies and government departments would be stripped of staff and responsibilities as the mayor's office takes over the Dublin aspect.

Needless to say, the proposals have gone down like a lead balloon within the higher echelons of government and the public service alike.

Although it's being attacked on cost grounds, 'the system' doesn't want to see a radical reform of the way policies are implemented and those in charge being held directly to account. Moreover, powers would be taken away from the existing State organisations.

The Dublin mayorship would become one of the most powerful positions in the country. The holder of the office would have more influence and profile than many cabinet ministers. The dangerous concept had to be stopped.

The object of the exercise was to let there be a national and local debate, where the pros and cons would be set out, followed by a referendum in Dublin about whether the creation of the job should proceed, in principle.

But it now looks like the people of Dublin won't get their say.

Next week, the four local authorities in Dublin – Dublin City Council, South Dublin County Council, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Fingal County Council – will decide whether or not there should be a vote.

All four have to agree and with a majority of the council members in each case – not just those who turn up on the day – voting for it.

Fingal is poised to vote against the referendum on the grounds that its councillors are unconvinced by the plan and fear that their area will be marginalised under a mayor whose concentration would supposedly be only on the city centre.

The bigger picture is being lost at the parish pump.

While the councils would stay in place and provide oversight, obviously the important policies would gravitate toward the new mayor's office.

Minister Phil Hogan has always been described as having an open mind on the issue of the new mayor's position. Although not his idea originally, he has allowed it to proceed along the initial phases.

However, he has now set an extraordinarily high bar for the plebiscite to take place. The minister won't be killing off the plan – the local councillors will be.

The democratically elected representatives of Dublin will be halting a democratic vote of the people because a minority of them don't agree with the plan.

They don't call him Cute Auld Phil for nothing, you know.

Sunday Independent

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