I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the chance to address your conference. Myself and my colleagues here on the panel share a common link in having started our political careers in local government and appreciate the vital part it plays in shaping the world around us. The AMAI has a proud 100 year old tradition of driving forward the progress of our towns and communities through the level of government closest to the citizen. It has witnessed immense change since its foundation in 1912 ranging from partition to the emergency and economic crisis. Throughout those years it pursued its vision of localism without stint and played a vital role in delivering real progress on the ground in our communities.
As we await the legislative proposals to underpin “Putting People First” it is clear that Local Government in Ireland now stands at a crossroads with the future of the AMAI itself hanging in the balance. I will outline my concerns about the ideas coming from the Custom House, in particular the grossly misleading idea that change is the same as reform. I will also briefly set out my own views on where Local Government should go in the long term.
This is not an academic topic that should be confined to unread reports and ivory tower debates. Across Ireland in towns and villages we are feeling the deep effects of recession with rising vacancy rates scarring the streets and hollowing out our communities. The task of providing vital services with increasingly limited resources is felt most acutely on the frontline of our councils. It is the challenge of local government to confront these problems head on and that is what is ultimately at stake when we talk about reform.
As many of you are hardened veterans of countless initiatives and reports I don’t need to tell you that the topic of local government reform has a long history stretching back to the 1971 White paper. However “Putting People First” comes against a vastly different political backdrop. The challenge of the economic crisis that has consumed the country for the past five years has demanded that we focus on the fundamentals of how we do politics in Ireland. The current government was elected on the back of a pledge of a “New Politics”.
The reality however has been far darker than those bright hopes. Instead of real reform we have had a slash and burn approach to the fundamental architecture of the state. The old Edmund Burke quote that to “innovate is not to reform” captures the government’s approach whereby change is confused for improvement and activity for real action.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in local government.
The upcoming Seanad abolition referendum, tinkering around the edges of the Dáil and complete removal of town councils betrays a flurry of activity but no real insightful reforms. The fundamental question we have to ask when we seek to implement a change is will it actually improve things. Real reform is a difficult task that demands commitment and perseverance by a government to design, implement and measure change. It is easier to adapt a more populist line but that is essentially trading short term gain for long term loss.
I suspect the inherently centralising attitude of the Custom House and Merrion street conveniently reflected a broader populist anger at politicians that sealed the fate of town councils. I do not believe the decision was taken as part of any deeper comprehensive vision of reformed governance in Ireland on behalf of the Minister. It smacks of a broader indifference to the role of local government in society and the natural inclination of the civil service to concentrate power as has long since been the case in this state.
As an opposition spokesperson you would naturally expect me to be sceptical about government proposals. But this is about more than that.
As signatures to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, adopted in 1985 it is interesting to note the response of the Council of Europe to the reforms. A draft monitoring report stated that the “new policy paper, although it praises decentralisation in spirit, does not appear to provide many concrete steps in that direction. The rapporteurs are concerned that some of the actual steps proposed go, in fact, in the opposite direction.” It also criticized the fact that the funding of local government, which in my view is ultimately the crux of the issue, remains a “mystery”.
The lack of detail over the funding mechanisms to the newly created Municipal District Councils and the powers that it will hold does not inspire confidence in them as a mechanism for real local democracy. The AMAI submission on the issue reflects that. Independent and flexible revenue sources will be the defining characteristic of the influence MDC’s can have upon their areas. Hand outs from the County Council that is itself reliant on hand-outs from the central government is not reform its central power by another name. The serious cutbacks that local government has already endured are a testament to the limits that the trickle down funding model has on local communities. Without identifying and changing the trickle down funding model of local government no change can genuinely claim to be radical.
Talk about the most profound changes since the 1898 Local Government Act miss the point that institutional changes mean very little to the ordinary citizen using local services and their engagement in the democratic process. What matters are real powers and real resources to implement them. Structures are important only in what progress they enable on the ground. The vague promises in relation to powers being dispersed in “Putting People First” belie the radical claims laid out by Minister Hogan. We have not seen real powers being decentralised in line with the European norms. Instead we remain rigidly tied with the UK as having the weakest local government in the Western World with severely limited powers, high population to representative ratios and deeply restricted fiscal independence.
My own party’s efforts in the area have been limited but not empty. Who would have thought it would be Fianna Fáil that abolished the Dual Mandate?
However the grave challenges of the current crisis demand fresh thinking. Now is the time for all political parties to pursue real change that reaches from the corridors of cabinet power to the community hall. The principle of subsidiarity must be at the heart of how we recast the framework of the state.
Five key themes of Engagement, Leadership, Delivery, Finance and Integrity are the pillars of the Fianna Fáil republican vision for radically transforming local government in Ireland.
The old town council structure will inevitably, barring successful legal challenge, be abolished by this government due to its unprecedented majority. Any promises by us on this panel to the contrary would be grossly misleading. But I believe that we cannot abandon the fight for real local representation building on the heritage of the AMAI.
Our vision for the future of local democracy is a new Community Council Model fairly distributed across the country that will bring government closer to the citizen and empower locals to have a real say in planning issues, address local on the ground problems and help create a strong sense of place in their communities.
Plebiscites on local issues, the roll out of the SOWIT program across the country, expanded routes for citizen participation in the planning process all form a new focus on creating a more vibrant democracy that is not simply about casting vote once every five years in the local elections. These new avenues of engagement will help bring government back to citizens and give them a real say and ownership of how their communities are run.
The AMAI has long since recognised that local leadership is the key to good governance. Things get done when people take responsibility for them and as experienced public representatives you all know that. I believe that greater leadership through Directly Elected Mayors replacing County Managers has the potential to take the initiative and cut through the bureaucratic problems that plague administration and prioritise new ideas in shaping our communities.
A radical new system of a fixed cabinet in charge of services areas will increase scrutiny and accountability as well as drive on reforms and efficiency in service delivery. Opening up the council with new working structures will help encourage broader participation in political life. A new Local Government Regulator will continual review the overall system as reform is not a once off it is an on-going process.
Fresh powers for local government must make it more relevant and responsive to the needs of citizens and help create local jobs. The greatest test for any form of government is whether it can delivers for its citizens. New powers in job creation and delivering important local services such as sports and recreation is a core part of a new local government structure.
Fianna Fáil will help promote job creation by greater a more flexible and dynamic local government that can access funding from central government and the EU as well as revamped local measures such as a new commercial rates regime to promote job stimulus measures and help local small business to grow and flourish.
New powers in funding sports and recreation, a revamped water services provision model drawing on the on the ground knowledge and delivery expertise of Local government, enhanced accountability and engagement with An Garda Siochana, an expanded role in education and fresh powers in setting Rent Supplement rates with landlords will fundamentally expand what Local Authorities can do to deliver for citizens. Local Authorities should also take the lead in tackling climate change from the bottom up.
Value for money and flexibility must be at the heart of funding local government. Businesses across the country are struggling under an unfair commercial rates system. We will transform the rates system with an inability to pay clause and link wit with rent levels to ensure greater fairness and flexibility. New forms of finance such as Tax Increment Finance and bonds as well as community levies as voted on by citizens have the potential to stimulate growth with targeted local projects.
As public representatives you have felt the brunt of the “sure your all the same” cynicism that is damaging politics in Ireland. A series of measures to restore public trust in local government and ensure the highest levels of probity in political life are an integral component of the Fianna Fáil vision for the future of local government. Reduced salaries and slashed expenses, Anti-Corruption Plans as standard, an enhanced auditing system, complete transparency on planning issues and declaration of interests, a greater role for SIPO and training for Councillors will help create the highest standards of governance in our local authority structure.
This is the moment for real reform of how we do politics in Ireland. The AMAI can be proud of its achievements over the past century. That historic mission of the AMAI is more relevant than ever in the shadow of Putting People First.
Now is the time to work even harder to defend the ethos of local democracy driving forward the economic and social progress of local communities. The old structures may change but the fight for the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that local people should be in charge of local decisions cannot be abandoned to crude populism masquerading as reform. I trust you will all continue the tradition of the AMAI in shaping local government in these next critical few months.