IT IS now a little over four weeks to the local government elections on June 5th. The last ones were held in 2004 and we elected 1,627 county councillors, city councillors and town councillors – most are back seeking re-election.
Which prompts the question: what are local councillors for? Why do we have local authorities at all when they seem to have fewer and fewer real powers? What useful function do local councillors have in terms of administration or governance?
One area where local councillors do retain real power is in planning – planning in terms of land use zoning and planning as in lobbying officials when they (the officials) are deciding which development applications are granted permission, and which are not. And it is in planning that unhealthy practices and relationships have built up over much of the past 30 years: in short, the planning process has been severely corrupted.
I am not alleging individual corruption (though, as the planning tribunal has shown, there has been skip-loads of that over the years). What I am arguing is that the process of planning, the process by which decisions are made, has been undermined, in that decisions are taken routinely for reasons that are inappropriate in planning terms.
Since Fianna Fáil abolished domestic rates following the 1977 general election, all local authorities have been at the mercy of central government for the bulk of their annual funding needs.
Because the interests of central government do not necessarily coincide with those of local government, local authorities have near-permanent financial shortfalls.
They have sought to address these by (a) contracting out services (with usually good results because of increased competition and the diminished influence of trade unions which see the public sector as a soft touch) and (b) levying developers when granting planning permission.
Take Wicklow (where I live), for example. Not long ago, at the height of the boom, one of Ireland’s major developers sought permission to build a huge shopping centre near Greystones. It was to be on a scale similar to the Liffey Valley centre in Lucan, Co Dublin, even though there was no obvious need for the development sought. At a council meeting discussion of the proposal, it emerged that private meetings had taken place between the developer and some councillors – private in that they were not witnessed by members of the public, as council meetings are, and private in that no formal record of the proceedings was made available to the public. It was therefore not possible to know who said what and assess why.
And yet, a councillor announced with a flourish of great triumph that the developer had agreed a legal undertaking to donate to the council – in exchange for permission for the centre – a site for a new Garda station and a new school. Councillors supported the development and the council, which would have received a very substantial capital injection from a levy, granted permission.
An Bord Pleanála subsequently overturned it for reasons that were blindingly obvious to many local people (the development would have destroyed existing commercial retail centres and was therefore not sustainable).
But why did councillors act in this way? The interests of a developer and a local authority are not the same. The duty of councillors is to represent the entire community, and either a Garda station and a school were needed or they were not.
But surely the decision on that should be taken on criteria supported by empirical data and unrelated, in any way whatsoever, to an application for a shopping development?
Will proper funding for local government and the sort of corrupting of process just described feature in the election campaign? I’m not holding my breath.