By Jim O'SullivanAs local government is currently configured it is hardly relevant at all.
The controversy surrounding the news that Sligo County Council is financially broke hides the reality that, if it was to disappear overnight, not many would mourn its passing. The fact is that local democracy in Ireland now has little relevance for the people and, in the recent decade and a half, has morphed fully into what central government intended for it at the creation of the Free State; an entirely toothless entity designed to serve the needs of the “party” and the central power rather than the needs of local communities.
The relationship between central and local government here was fraught from the outset. Some viewed local government as a remnant of British Rule and therefore did not trust it, while the turmoil caused by the struggle for independence and the ensuing Civil War created conditions in which it faltered and almost stopped functioning at all in some areas.
This led to the Local Government Act of 1923, which gave the Minister the power to dissolve any local authority which did not properly discharge its duties or proved recalcitrant, and to appoint special commissioners in its place. As local government more and more fell under the control of officials, this led to the “manager system” which in fact removed, for all intents and purposes, “democracy” from the process of local government.
Inevitably, the system became the plaything of political parties with all activities dictated from Dublin---a situation that is at utter variance with the principles that should inform and determine how local democracy ought to work.
If Local Democracy is to be a vital factor in the social, economic and political structure of society it must reflect the needs and ambitions of the catchment population and contribute materially to local economic growth, and in turn, the national economy too. To achieve this it must be rooted in the principles of furthering community interests, striving to provide vital services to all, being accessible and accountable and subject to popular sovereignty. But it can only deliver if it is both required to and is let.
And it is worth pausing to consider both the potential of local democracy and what is being lost.
The history of local government in Britain, from which the Irish model was originally based, is one of impressive achievement and service. It was local government there that eventually came to grips with the dreadful outfall of the industrial revolution----towns and cities wedged with workers lured from the countryside to work in factories in turn led to appalling living conditions.
The Municipal Corporation Act of 1840 began the process whereby local communities could take responsibility for their own affairs. It was local government that cleared out the ghettos of Manchester, the hub of the industrial revolution, and improved the health of citizens immeasurably by focusing on the causes and taking control of the means to change what was happening. The challenge that they faced was staggering as indicated by statistics such as, life expectancy at 38 and only 40% of children reached the age of 5.
The main areas tackled first were poor housing (housing had been left to private housing associations and the good will of employers), sanitation and the provision of access to safe, clean water.
Social housing provision was placed under the control of the local authority. Sanitation was greatly improved by the introduction of waste collection and proper disposal and the prevention of sewage and waste water “pooling”. Access to clean water supply was made available. Soon local authorities were providing a package of vital services which made them an indispensible entity in the lives of people and crucial to the future development and prosperity of local communities.
Other laws in succession from the 1840 Act extended and improved the machinery of municipal administration until finally, the Local Government Act of 1898, set up the model of democratic local administration that we can recognise today.
Unfortunately, despite over 100 years of service and achievement, the laisse-fare ideology which created the disaster of the mid 1800’s has returned and threatens to turn back the clock to when local communities had no services. This is to accommodate again a so called “low-tax” fiscal model of governance which regained a foothold in the West in the early 1980s. In Britain the fight to preserve local democracy continues with resistance to new “reforms” in the shape of a “Localism Bill” which has all the characteristics of a Trojan horse designed to undermine the system from within. The local democratic system there is however bedded in firmly and is proving very resilient, unlike here where an already wishy-washy system is ripe to have whatever teeth remain removed. The result is that vital services are being withdrawn and in a dangerously haphazard manner.
If we take for example refuse collection services: In Sligo, this was handed over to for-profit companies and in the event that a household could not afford the service on offer they were simply left with none. Despite the lessons from previous times which showed that waste not properly disposed of will in time create a serious risk to health, the imperative to reduce taxation at any cost prevailed and once again, for the first time in 100 years, authorities cannot ensure that all waste generated is safely disposed of. A trip around the periphery of any town or city will show that much is dangerously finding its way into the environment.
The outsourcing of services generally is also contributing significantly to the financial crux that local authorities find themselves in. Services, such as refuse collection and social housing, provides vital revenue streams that local authorities need to remain viable and strong. (Anyone ever ask question where all the rent that is paid to private housing association here in Sligo goes to?).
Another negative spin off for the local economy from this outsourcing sees money that should remain in the local community being taken away in the pockets of those companies that perform the services and work. Even those large grants to repair roads etc., which used to stay local by way of purchasing raw material and paying local staff, all now migrate out of the area to be spent elsewhere. Local authorities contributing to the local economy here in Sligo has, in any meaningful sense, stopped.
The new government has promised to “reform” the system commencing this autumn but judging by the speech delivered by Minister Phil Hogan, it appears that all that will happen is that the size of local authorities will be cut. Indeed, Hogan’s latest round of untargeted cuts demonstrates an appalling indifference to local democracy.
His speech indicated no clear discernible will to cut local democracy free from the dead hand of central government/party control, indeed reading between the lines suggests that we are all set for a system that will remain in a straitjacket totally subservient to the Minister’s wishes---not those of local communities. The Minister referred to the need to create new income streams yet not a word about those vital services that have already been hived off and which are capable of doing just that. Private companies are not interested in providing services, they are only concerned with making profit therefore we can deduce from their involvement that providing such services is not only capable of providing needed income streams but can also generate significant surpluses too.
The reforms that are needed are measures to ensure that the decision making apparatus of local government is answerable by way of ballot to the local community. Professional administrators are needed but they must function only on instruction from elected officials and the authority must have the power to take initiatives, without recourse to central government, that are in the interests of the local community.
The test for any reforms that are meaningful can be gauged against very simple criteria.
Are vital services under the control of the authority and accessible to all, regardless of income or none?
Are those making key decisions answerable to the local community?
Are there adequate systems to consult with the community prior to making any significant changes to existing systems and services?
Is their openness and full transparency with access to all key documentation?
Has the community the power to remove from office any elected member not acting in the communities best interests?
In his speech Minister Hogan stated, “This is why I am mandated by a reforming Government to drag the system of local government into the twenty-first century; so that it delivers more to the community it serves and puts people first.”
Mr. Hogan might in fact be well advised to do the complete opposite and drag us back 100 years to the time when local government was totally focused on the local community and delivered services in the common good---free where appropriate to ensure that every citizen could access them. Services which do not carry waivers work contrary to the common good. The vermin that thrives on ill disposed waste for example, will cross many a garden before it reaches it---a lesson that our Victorian forebears learned the hard way and who now must be rolling in their graves as their off spring, by ignoring history, look set to repeat it.