Occasionally it can be enlightening to cast a comparative glance towards local government in other countries, particularly countries who are also struggling with recession, austerity measures and varying degrees of commitment to localism.
The extent of cuts in local government funding in the UK have certainly resulted in a necessity to develop dramatically different ways of doing things. But the proposals put forward in ‘Putting People First’ make the changes on this side of the Irish Sea look like mere tinkering.
The report announces plans to consolidate local government by reducing the number of local councils to from 114 to 31 and cutting the number of elected councillors by 42%.
The local government context in Ireland differs markedly from the English experience. Irish local authorities have historically had a comparatively narrow range of functions, particularly with regard to social welfare, health, education, policing, transport and consumer protection. ‘Putting the People’ first does not propose to increase the scope of local influence over any of these policy areas.
The government has billed the proposals as “rebalancing of power to the democratically elected local councillor and away from the management system”, and a way to achieve much needed civic engagement in the affairs of local government. But it is difficult to find anything in the report to back up these claims. There is scant evidence of delegation of powers to the local level; indeed the reverse is true. Alongside that, there seem to be little in consideration of alternative ways of engaging more effectively with citizens at the local level, given the removal of such a large number of local councillors and local structures.
Initial reactions to the report have been perhaps surprisingly mixed. No-one doubts the dire financial situation Ireland finds itself in, and given the need to make significant savings, local government’s perceived bureaucracy has been a popular target, as has been the case in other countries. Furthermore, there has been widespread sentiment that a lack of transparency and accountability at the local level has fuelled corruption and inefficiency, and that local government needed to be ‘tackled’.
However, given the lack of concrete plans for how better civic engagement at the local level can be achieved, it is easy to also read in these proposals a worrying shift towards centralisation and a blow to the ability of Irish people to hold decision makers accountable and make local public services better.