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Eamon Ryan: Local power? This is all about centralising it

MINISTER Phil Hogan claims he wants to strengthen local government, but his reform plans will do the opposite. He is centralising power away from regional assemblies, which will have little or no decision-making responsibility. Those assemblies should be planning and co-ordinating our transport, water and waste infrastructure, but in reality the National Transport Authority, the new National Water Company and the National Waste Planning Co-ordinating Group will call the shots.

The democratic structure of these new assemblies is flawed. The Government has ignored one of the key recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal, to have direct elections to such authorities. Instead, we will have a system where two councillors from each county in the region will be appointed to the assembly. Under current political circumstances this will guarantee Fine Gael 50pc of the representation and give them an effective hold on what they do.

The Mahon Tribunal insisted we needed greater accountability and transparency, but Fine Gael and Labour are delivering the same shadowy planning world that got us into trouble in the first place.

The greatest impediment to new investment in critical energy and telecommunications infrastructure comes from delays in the planning process. Few people would defend the current town council system, but what Phil Hogan has failed to do is set out a new form of community representation that might help us get over these planning difficulties.

The "We The Citizens" initiative showed the benefits that could arise from using new participative democratic models. We could set up community councils at little or no cost, with people taking up public roles on a voluntary basis. People from all sides could sit around a table at a very early stage in a planning proposal. By allowing experts in to explain the options and by hearing from both sides, we might avoid the legal quagmires that are currently becoming the norm.

The minister's plan talks of developing enterprise and higher education strategies at a regional level, but with no real resources, no legal powers and no direct democratic accountability the assemblies will become talking shops that county councils can ignore.

Even when it comes to the planning of future housing, the assemblies' powers will be reduced. Having three regions so large that they run from Clones in the north to Kinvara in the west and from Gorey to Caherciveen in the south makes a mockery of the National Spatial Strategy.

How will Waterford develop as a unique centre for the southeast when it will be competing with Cork and Limerick for resources in a new southern region? How will we solve Dublin's transport problems when the body for such planning is an assembly where most members come from outside the city?

Better democracy is the first thing you need if you want to get your budget right. The minister does commit to giving greater powers at county council level, but everything is subject to further caveats and additional research. Mr Hogan and his colleagues must redress the balance in favour of local accountability and transparency as they start implementing their plan.

Failure to do so will indeed mean it is seen as a historic document -- for all the wrong reasons.

Eamon Ryan is leader of the Green Party

Irish Independent