Friday 13 December 2019

A new dawn has arrived for the councils' top brass

John Downing

John Downing

BRACE yourselves, all you old school city and county managers. You may well be about to meet what might at first glance look like the political equivalent of Dublin Zoo heading to your council chamber.

The local councils' managers, engineers and other senior officials are quietly rated by many as some of the most skilled political tacticians in the country. They are also very used to, ultimately, getting their own way. Relatively quickly these officials manage to cajole, flatter, favour and by various other means win over all but the most recalcitrant councillors.

But the sea-change in the intake of the council 'Class of 2014' will prove extremely challenging for the mandarins of our city and county halls. The very high proportion of councillors classified as 'independents' may well make it extremely difficult to have local yearly budgets agreed.

At the very least we can expect some brinkmanship at each annual estimates meeting. We should not be surprised if some councils fail to agree their budgets and duly risk being prorogued or abolished, to be replaced by an appointed commissioner from central government.

This has been a very rare occurrence in the history of Irish local government. In 1969, Dublin City Council was abolished and replaced by a senior official acting as commissioner.

All councils work on a symbiotic system of co-operation, conflict and sometimes attrition between councillors and senior officials.

Good councillors often leave their party allegiance at the meeting room door and collaborate with rivals to get things done. Really good councillors know they have few real powers and as a result concentrate on increasing their influence with the officials.

Officials are prepared to favour good councillors' demands in return for a positive and collaborative approach to the council's work. It is a system which has evolved and into which newly promoted officials and newly elected councillors are gradually inducted from the time of their arrival.

Even before the polling booths opened last Friday, it was clear that things would be different for the new councils.

The abolition of town councils has meant an increase in the numbers of city and county councillors in the eastern half of the country and a small reduction in numbers in some western counties with declining populations.

These changes suggested a bigger number of newcomers to the various council chambers. The plethora of Independent candidates suggested that this would be intensified and the returns showing that Independents took 28.4pc of the first- preference vote bore this out.

The strength of Sinn Fein, bringing in many first-time councillors, will also pose a challenge for the councils' management system, used to dealing with majorities from the older established parties.

But Sinn Fein councillors can be expected to present as coherent council groups and the organisation has the expertise to help guide newcomers. Officials will believe they can work out accommodations with Sinn Fein over a relatively short period of time.

Much of the expected cultural sea change in the councils will bring benefits. Ask any politician around Leinster House who has come through the council system and you will quickly learn about the smouldering resentment at some senior council officials' tendency towards autocracy in their work.

Councillors are elected by the people and can be thrown out next time out. It is not always clear to whom the officials are answerable. But it is also clear that managers and other senior officials have considerable direct powers.

These officials, as "the local permanent government", can often have an advantage in the relationship with elected councillors, who may lack the breadth of knowledge and, above all, access to funding, to match them.

However, the system of local administration will not work without a meeting of minds and a level of trust and co-operation between the elected and the appointed.

There is genuine worry across government about the number of Independents who won voter favour by criticising local taxes and water charges. It is an established fact that local taxes are factored into all local budgets.

In many council areas business owners are struggling with unfair commercial rates and some traders will fear that they may be further squeezed in any local budgetary conflicts. Soon councils will have the power to vary local taxes by a margin of plus or minus 15 pc.

History teaches us that some of our most accomplished politicians came through the local government system and learned their trade on the basis of the time-honoured maxim that "all politics are local."

The system which has been with us since 1898 may be about to undergo some significant changes not seen since the "manager system" was phased in back in the 1930s.

Both management and new councillors are going to have to show some patience and respect for each others' respective roles. The quality of the local environment depends on this.

Irish Independent Supplement

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