When Phil Hogan asks us to pay more for local government, he shouldn't be surprised to learn that we expect better value for money and improved service delivery. Yet I struggle to imagine how Phil Hogan thinks he can get away with making us pay more, through property and water charges, for increased costs and reduced services from local government.
Phil Hogan's grandly named policy for reform of Local Government, entitled Putting People First, is a policy statement big on promise and extremely short on any real reform.
Putting People First will do anything but "put people first". It will, in fact, put people last, last behind inflated costs, increased bureaucracy, reduced services and more political cronyism. It will fall far short of what people should expect by way of reform of local government. Putting People First will demand that people pay more for an even more expensive and bloated local government with 60 extra councillors in Dublin and a new CEO for the City Council.
It is unbelievable that the minister expects the people of Dublin to pay a grossly unfair and anti-Dublin property tax and water charges for 60 more councillors and an unreliable water service.
Putting People First fails to in any way address gender imbalance, it in no way strengthens local democracy, it will bloat the political establishment by adding more councillors in Dublin, at an additional cost of €1m a year, and it gives no new revenue-raising powers to the local authorities. In fact, it relegates local government to merely implementing national government policy.
Women make up half the population yet fewer than 20 per cent of councillors are female. Putting People First does nothing to reverse this situation. Worse still, it attempts to perpetuate the lie that his 2012 legislation requiring parties to achieve gender balance in candidate selection will somehow get more women elected. Closer examination of Hogan's legislation reveals that it sets quotas for candidates, not seats. The only thing Hogan's legislation will lead to is more women being abused by the political process when they are selected to contest unwinnable seats so that political parties can collect their public funding.
Putting People First makes no real commitment to strengthening local democracy by empowering the elected representatives. What is the point of incurring more cost by creating more councillors if there are no new powers? Is it to create the pretence of local democracy? Is it to protect Government party councillors' seats at the next local elections? Is it to stuff the council chamber with loyal party cronies who will obediently implement national Government policy?
This model has resulted in the privatisation of social housing and waste management with no demonstrable cost savings. City officials are supposed to be accountable to the elected council but in reality, the officials are more or less free to do whatever they want. Many councillors strenuously objected to the City Manger's decision to privatise bin collections in the city. That secret deal has left the people of Dublin with an out-of-control litter crisis, the loss of more than €20m in revenue and no evidence of real cost savings or value for money.
The most critical failure of Putting People First is its failure to give any real revenue-raising power to local government. It is unacceptable that homeowners in Dublin are being forced to pay an unfair property tax to fund local government, yet the Government itself refuses to pay Dublin City Council more than €20m each year in rates on Government buildings.
It is unfair that Government ministers and TDs are exempted from paying property tax, in the form of rates, on their constituency offices (which are, in fact, paid for by taxpayers) while the working poor, unemployed, pensioners and struggling families will have to pay the property tax out of any after-tax income they can scrape together.
Putting People First does not give local authorities any new revenue-raising powers. It does not allow local authorities set its own local tax, collect its own local tax or spend its own local tax. In a lame attempt to create a veneer of local democracy involvement, the unfair property tax promises in time to give minuscule scope to local authorities to tinker with the rate. Don't hold out too much expectation for that empty promise.
People in Dublin paid more for their homes, paid more stamp duty, paid more in private management charges than the rest of the country. More people in Dublin are living with negative equity and mortgage arrears. People in Dublin rightly feel the property tax is anti-Dublin yet Phil Hogan tells us to pay up to fund reduced local services. If Minister Hogan was serious about reforming local government, he will need to be more ambitious and undertake serious reform.
Serious changes would involve an independent review of the role and powers of councillors with a view to rebalancing power in favour of the democratically elected representatives. Serious changes would involve reducing the costs and eliminating duplication by merging the four Dublin local authorities into one Greater Dublin Authority. Serious changes would involve reducing the number of councillors and creating equality of representation in Dublin.
New York City, with a population of more than eight million, has 51 city councillors. Yet Dublin with 1.3 million people has not one, but four local authorities, four county managers, four lord mayors, four chambers filled with 131 councillors. The number of councillors in Dublin should be more than halved. This would reduce parish pump-type politics that involves multiple councillors falling over each other to get a pot hole fixed.
Serious changes would mean saving millions by eliminating the current ceremonial role of lord mayors of the four Dublin local authorities and replacing them with one directly elected mayor for the Dublin region. A directly elected mayor would provide strong political leadership that could champion the city region both at home and abroad and defend it against anti-Dublin Government policies. Instead, in a few weeks' time and in yet another example of "jobs for the boys"' government party city councillors will appoint the nephew of a senior Government minister to the expensive and wholly ceremonial role of Lord Mayor of Dublin.
Minister Hogan does not appear to appreciate the extent of the pressure being placed on people who will struggle to pay his unfair property tax and proposed water charges. At a time when people are being asked to pay for local government through new and increased taxes, there is an absolute necessity for it to deliver better services at less cost.
We should expect and demand efficient, effective and accountable local government. The minister should reconsider his proposal.
Mary Fitzpatrick is a Fianna Fail member of Dublin City Council, representing the Cabra-Glasnevin electoral area