Sunday 23 October 2016

Real reform is more than just merging councils

Published 08/04/2015 | 02:30

Does buying land make sense at a time when you're already sitting on sites worth €2.2bn, are experiencing sharp drops in your income and are already struggling to repay loans? Probably not.

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But it appears that at a time when the Government was telling us all to tighten our belts and take our austerity medicine, local authorities were busy spending more than €150m a year on such an endeavour.

It raises questions as to what level of scrutiny is being applied to the spending of enormous sums of public money.

This €640m spend took place during a period when budgets for new roads and houses had all but dried up, and when the Government was actively considering selling State assets just to keep the show on the road.

So why buy more land? It may have been to open up sites for development, or to provide a road at some point in the future, but no explanation is forthcoming.

Examining the Local Government Auditor's report won't provide the answer, as it merely cites the amount spent. The Department of the Environment said it was examining the matter, while the Local Government Management Agency, which represents the sector, was not available to provide a comment.

It's not really good enough, and perhaps best illustrates the lack of transparency in how local authorities spend money.

The Local Government Auditor has repeatedly highlighted the precarious financial position of many, and has also warned of shortcomings in how finances are managed. Yet, many still spend more than they take in.

Despite reducing day-to-day expenditure by €770m a year since 2008, they are owed almost €600m in unpaid water charges, housing rents and loans and commercial rates which they fail to collect.

Even as they continue to purchase land banks and other assets, some are not even registered with the Property Registration Authority meaning the taxpayer is not protected.

Local government should be independent, but some national oversight might not go amiss. If Government is serious about reforming local government, ensuring that the books are balanced and explanations are provided for how public money is spent would be a good start. The rest is just window dressing.

Irish Independent

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