How democratic is Local Government?
Opinion - Just a month away from the Local Elections, Sligo’s longest serving councillor, Declan Bree, first elected in 1974, gives his views as he prepares to fight yet another election on how Local Government has changed and evolved over those years
Just a month away from the Local Elections, Sligo's longest serving councillor, Declan Bree, first elected in 1974, gives his views on how Local Government
Sligo, in common with every other local authority area has witnessed major changes in the administration and functioning of local government over the past number of decades.
The most detrimental and significant change of recent years was the decision by Fine Gael and the Labour Party to abolish an entire tier of councils including Sligo Borough Council in 2014, while other changes including the reduction in the number of elected representatives at county level and the ongoing diminution of the powers of local councils which has created serious difficulties in the local government section.
The Irish local government system is now the most constrained, narrow based and weakest system of local government in the European Union.
Instead of the devolution of powers to local councils the Fine Gael/Labour government undermined local democracy; abolished the system of local government that was closest to the people - the borough and town councils. This was totally at odds with what was happening in every other European democracy.
Today it is recognised that borough and town councils were the most efficient element within the Irish local government system. There were no savings whatsoever when Sligo Borough Council was abolished and what really occurred was a reduction in the level of accountability in the administration of local government in addition to significant cuts in funding in the Borough.
All of us want to influence out local environment, how our neighborhoods' are planned and developed, how our services are delivered including matters such as education, housing, health services, transport and traffic matters, policing, the everyday issues that shape the quality of our lives.
In most countries, these everyday matters are the concerns and functions of a strong system of local government. However in Ireland decisions relating to these matters are made by unelected officials, bureaucrats or quangos, where there is little or no democratic accountability.
Originally our hospitals and health services were run by the local councils. A number of years before I was first elected control of the health services were transferred to Regional Health Boards which at least had councillors as members. This was all lost when the unelected HSE was established.
The abolition of domestic rates in 1977 has a profound effect in that it created a significant dependence on funding from central government.
From the 1980's onwards councils continued to lose responsibilities and power. While central government established quangos composed of non elected personal, elected councillors consistently lost powers over road plans, waste management plans, health services, housing, refuse collections, waste charges, water services and many planning functions.
Even the decisive role which councillors once had over their annual budget and in respect of development plans were greatly diminished. At the same time County Manager's/Chief Executive's and senior officials were given additional powers while unelected quangos like the HSE, National Transport Authority and Irish Water were given the seal of approval.
Today on many councils the Chief Executive and officials act as the "local government" and the councillors function as a kind of "opposition" in the council chamber.
The significant powers vested in officials has led to an extremely weak local political system. Chief Executives do not have a political mandate to represent the local community while at the same time local elected representatives do not have the responsibilities or structures to optimise a strong local leadership role.
This local democratic weakness in turn reinforces the tendency for local communities and politicians alike to turn to central government to deal with issues which should be dealt with locally.
Unfortunately the mainstream political parties accept the ongoing diminution of local self government and local democracy.