Monday 23 September 2019

Council culls open door to a welcome revolution


The biggest land hoards in the capital are held by Dublin’s councils. Picture: Steve Humphreys
The biggest land hoards in the capital are held by Dublin’s councils. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

There is many a stumble down memory lane, especially if you are retracing four decades of a working life. But to say that there has been sweeping change since 1978, when I joined the work force, is an understatement.

Our culture and institutions have evolved unrecognisably. Some of them have been dragged screaming and roaring into the 21st century. Our most painful lessons have been well rehearsed.

We've witnessed the separation of State and the Catholic Church. Policing is undergoing a transition and the world of political ethics was turned inside out at tribunals.

Then there was the cataclysm caused by an unregulated, self-serving banking culture resulting in national insolvency.

Over the same period, the complete systemic structural failure of local government - county and city councils - has been pretty much ignored. It's time to call them out on their dismal dysfunction.

When I was a member of Wexford County Council/Enniscorthy Urban Council during the 1980s (before the mandate whereby one could be both TD and councillor was abolished in 2004), such bodies had real clout. Their power came from bloated budgets, which entailed shouldering significant responsibilities.

The annual estimates process came with endless meetings focused on preparing draft/final budgets of tens of millions to cover housing, roads, sanitary services and refuse collection. As a TD, half my routine constituency workload related to council functions. You found yourself tied up with tenants' house repairs, housing allocations, planning applications, road repairs.

We inherited our basic local government structures from the British going back to 1899, when counties/towns were established as basic administrative units. In hindsight it might be argued that their population of 60 million people, compared to our four million, required greater localised devolution of powers than was really ideal for our small State.

But the radical reform that came in 2014 saw council numbers reduced from 114 to 31 - abolishing 75 town councils, five boroughs and amalgamating councils in Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary. This involved a councillor cull of 1,627 down to 949 public representatives.

Measures to prevent abuses of expenses by councillors attending pointless international conferences reduced payable limits by €4,000.

Chairpersons or mayors would be subject to ceilings of reclaimable allowances.

Back in the day, councillors were able to earn a full-time living from expenses. Council meetings, plus attendance at affiliated representative bodies like VECs, health boards, library, fire services, agriculture committees, plus various regional authorities all added up. Town twinning was another junketing bonanza.

The standard of council debates was mercilessly and accurately satirised by Frank Hall's 'Pictorial Weekly' TV programme with scenes from the fictional Ballymagash Council.

Eventually national impatience with the tardy delivery of vital infrastructure boiled over resulting in replacement and radical reform. The pace and roll-out of motorway networks was simply unacceptable, despite 100pc central government funding plus massive EU backing. The National Roads Authority was established in 1993 (Transport Infrastructure Ireland).

We mightn't have the M1 to Dundalk, M4 and M6 to Galway, M8 to Cork, M7 to Limerick, N19 to Waterford, or the nearly complete N11 to Wexford today - without the establishment of a dedicated national executive.

The same shortcomings at local government are behind our inexcusable lack of a modern sanitary services infrastructure. Irish Water was established in 2013 because local authorities failed to adequately plan, invest or execute.

Their legacy is water tunnels from the 1870s, rusted cast-iron pipes and cement water mains from the 1960s that regularly burst. More than half of our treated water is lost. Two thirds of our 25,000km sewer network is severely defective.

Many areas have to put up with raw sewage in seas and rivers. We have been hammered by EU fines.

Councillors and department officials turned on each other, citing resource allocations, bureaucratic delays and pandering to local objections. While the blame games persisted, 1.36 million householders endured their collective deficiencies, neglect and shortcomings. A dedicated public utility, with a singular focus, is finally set for a belated national roll-out.

The decimation of other council services occurred through privatisation. Back then, refuse collection was done by the councils. They'd a public monopoly on bin services. Populist councillors wanted collections for free, as a public service. But what they actually wanted was votes. The service was grossly inefficient, subject to regular industrial disputes and hugely expensive.

Today Panda, Greyhound, Thornton's, City Bin Company and nationwide private companies compete commercially, whilst providing recycling/incineration instead of hideously filthy landfill sites.

The financing of local government, since rates were abolished in 1977, reflects consistent cowardice on behalf of councillors to levy householders with any charges. Primary finance for local councils, other than central funding and motor tax, is the Local Property Tax.

It is regulated and enforced at national level on 1.58 million houses by the Revenue Commissioners, with the councillors' role limited to voting for the maximum allowable reductions in charges. Which they always do. They're congenitally incapable of raising funds, except from commercial ratepayers.

Which brings us to the latest national intolerance. The last straw - the lack of social and affordable housing.

Since 2014, we've been promised by successive housing ministers tens of thousands of new council houses. In 2016, they only built 246. In 2017, there was a total of 780 new homes across the country, leaving aside acquisitions.

Another lamentable performance compared to the activity of voluntary (non-profit) social housing (non-government) organisations. Under the Irish Council for Social Housing, some 270 groups like Cluid, Focus Ireland, Simon and Respond have delivered 2,330 homes since 2013. Yet again we have been obliged to take a primary responsibility away from local government.

Historically, council house maintenance was so costly and inefficient it was cheaper to sell off the vital housing stock to tenants at massive discounts than repair.

Councils are incubators of NIMBY cultures that object to new houses. Fast-track planning procedures (more than 100 houses) Strategic Housing Developments are deliberately designed to circumvent councils - theoretically reducing two-year delays to six months.

Déjà vu. Cabinet approval for a statutory Land Development Agency, with a budget of €1.25bn, to develop directly state housing construction, represents a further emasculation of councils. In fact, the biggest land hoarders in the capital are actually Dublin's local councils, facing vacant site levies of €2m.

Local government, housed in preposterous shining glass Taj Mahals along with Custom House bureaucracy, is again set to be supplanted.

Irish Independent

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