Report on Local Democracy in Ireland - CPL (8) 4 Part II
Rapporteur: Louis ROPPE (Belgium)
1. Introductory remarks
In Resolution 31 (1996), the Congress made it clear that, over a reasonable period of time, all member States would be the subject of a report on local and regional democracy. Furthermore, Article 2.3 of the Statutory Resolution of the Congress adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 15 March 2000 provides that the Congress shall prepare on a regular basis country-by-country reports on the situation of local and regional democracy in all member States and shall ensure that the principles of the European Charter of Local Self-government are implemented.
The newly established Institutional Committee identified Ireland as one the countries which should be subject of a report on local democracy. This proposal was approved by the Bureau of the Congress on 7 November 2000. The Bureau appointed Mr Louis ROPPE (Belgium), President of the Institutional Committee of the Chamber of Local Authorities, Chairman of the Flemish Association of Municipalities, as rapporteur for Ireland. The consultant for the rapporteur was Mr Torsten BJERKEN, Senior Lecturer in Law at the Department of Social Sciences of Örebro University and member of the Committee of independent experts on the European Charter of Local Self-government. The rapporteur wishes to express his thanks to Mr BJERKEN for his assistance in the preparation of this report.
The rapporteur has received a mass of documentation with regard to local government in Ireland from many interlocutors and visited this country on the following two occasions:
Dublin, from 29 to 31 January 2001 and
Galway, Carlow, Maynooth and Dublin from 3 to 7 March 2001
A programme of the visits and the persons met appears under Appendix I. The rapporteur would like to express his thanks to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Mr Noel DEMPSEY, and the high ranking officials of the Ministry. Particular thanks also go to the General Council of the County Councils, its President, Councillor Enda NOLAN, and the Director, Mr Liam KENNY who largely facilitated the rapporteur’s task.
The major aim of this report is to provide direct knowledge on the actual functioning of local government in Ireland from a comparative perspective and to comment on a comprehensive reform of local public institutions which is currently underway in Ireland. The rapporteur hope that an outside balanced view on local democracy in Ireland will help Irish society to move forward towards genuine local democracy at the time when the Parliament is examining a new Local Government Bill 2000.
The report is arranged as follows. In Section 2 the current system of local government in Ireland is presented. A brief presentation of the reforms and discussions in the 1990s is also made. The comprehensive reform bill that has been introduced in parliament this year, is briefly addressed in Section 2.14. Certain issues of special interest in the present context are discussed in Section 3. Some aspects of local government in relation to the European Charter of Local Self-Government are summed up in Section 5.
2. Local self-government in progress
2.1 The present system
2.1.1 Historical background
In Ireland modern local self-government was introduced a hundred years ago by the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898. Part of the Act is still in force and together with a number of other mostly more recent acts it forms the legal basis of Irish local government. The 1898 Act was adopted by the British parliament at a time when Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. It was based on the common-law traditions of local government. In principle Ireland’s independence did not change the basic features of local government. Although Ireland, unlike the United Kingdom, has a written Constitution, local government followed until recently the British approach and had a statutory (that is based on Acts of Parliament) rather than a constitutional basis (that is based on a written constitution) (see Section 2.1.3). The same ultra vires rule applied to Irish local government as it does to British local government: the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament) defines the areas of competence of local government that did not possess a general competence (see Section 2.1.2). A new system of administration of county and city local government with a manager as Head of Administration with origins in the US city management systems, was fully operational by 1942. In the last ten years, modernisation of local government has been an ongoing process. To comment on the ongoing modernisation is an important objective of the present report.
2.1.2 Reforms and reform discussion in the 1990s
After decades of a weak local government exercising few functions, with limited financial resources and subordinated to a large extent to the central government, in the 1990s a number of reforms were introduced and there has been a lively discussion about local government. It is important to mention in this context that the rigorous ultra vires doctrine has been restricted in 1991. The state control over local government was reduced in 1994. The third step towards more local autonomy was the constitutional referendum held in 1999 (see Section 2.1.3). It seems that the reforms have been cautious and footed on the existing system. In the late 1990s, a concept of the Strategic Policy Committees (SPC), Corporate Policy Groups (CPG) and the County Development Boards (CDB) was introduced. They are intended to strengthen and coordinate strategic planning and enhance the role of the elected councillor, while working in close partnership with the local community and state agencies (See Section 3.8). Among important official programme documents can be mentioned “Better Local Government A Programme for Change” (1996), "Task Force on Integration of Local Government and Local Development Systems: Report" (1998), and “Modernising Government. The Challenge for Local Government” (March 2000). After ample preparations a comprehensive Local Government Bill was introduced in Parliament in 2000 (Bill N° 23 of 2000) (see Section 2.1.4).
Some of these comprehensive changes in local government were proposed in 1996 when the then government published a white paper document “Better Local Government. A programme for change”. This programme was mainly designed to :
- enhance local democracy by ensuring in particular that the role of Councillors in running local councils is strengthened;
- bring more openness and transparency in decision- making in local authorities;
- develop efficiency of local authorities through development of partnerships between central and local authorities, and between local authorities and other local organisations;
- provide proper resources for local government in particular through the introduction of a source of revenue with in-built buoyancy and a measure of local discretion.
This programme was designed as a long-term one and set out a framework of specific actions by the government. The main objective of this programme was clearly to move progressively towards a renewal of local government.
It was felt that the changes were needed as the Irish government noted that while the law envisaged elected members exercising the policy-making role, the structure and powers of local government had made it difficult for Councillors to fulfil this function, other than by the formal adoption of policy documents prepared by management. The Programme tries to set up a framework for a greater involvement of local Councillors in developing policy initiatives and in the strategic monitoring of local authority operations. It is obvious that the success of this policy will eventually depend on the range of powers available to the local elected representatives; their take up of the opportunities and new roles being presented and the financial means foreseen to achieve this goal.
The current Minister for Environment and Local Government, Mr Noel Dempsey, is committed to taking steps aimed to enhance the role of Councillors in setting up policy for local services and in giving them leadership to socio-economic development at local level in concert with social partners.
Constitutional provision on local government and legal framework
Until 1999, there was no constitutional provision on local government in the Irish Constitution although Ireland has always had a written constitution unlike in the United Kingdom.
The amendments made to Irish Constitution by national referendum in 1999 to include provisions on local self-government (Article 28A) can be seen as a cornerstone of modernisation of Irish local government. The five paragraphs of the article stipulate that there shall be directly elected local authorities. All citizens who have the right to vote in a parliament election and such other persons that may be determined by law shall have the right to vote. Elections must be held at least every five years. This will put an end to the practice of elections being cancelled or postponed for political reasons as was the case in the past. Local government is said to provide “a forum for the democratic representation of local communities, in exercising and performing at local level powers and functions conferred by law and in promoting by its initiatives the interests of such communities.” Like similar constitutional provisions in other European countries, the Irish constitution is not specific concerning local government’s powers and functions. However, Ireland’s constitutional provisions seem to be in line with the European Charter of Local Self-Government (hereafter : the Charter).
Besides constitutional provisions, the principal enactments under which the different classes of local authorities operate today are as follows : Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act, 1840; Towns Improvement (Ireland) Act, 1854; Public Health (Ireland) Act, 1878; Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898; Local Government Acts, 1925-1997 as well as a number of acts which apply to individual city local authorities only.
The recent introduction of the draft Local Government Bill 2000 by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to the parliament has marked the achievement of some years of debate over the future of local government in Ireland (the main features of the draft Bill are considered in Section 2.1.4 below). The Bill will, if adopted, be the cornerstone of the new Irish local government system.
2.1.4 The Draft Local Government Bill 2000 (hereafter: Bill 2000 or Bill)
Bill 2000 follows the lines of the Programme “Better Local Government. A programme for change”. The draft Bill is designed to consolidate, modernise and simplify the current legislation which is scattered over a wide range of enactments (see Section 2.1.3 above). Consultation on the draft was conducted by the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the Congress delegation took note of the comments made by local Councillors during a seminar of 6th July 2000 in Tralee.
Among its guiding principles the draft Bill reiterates the government’s commitment to enhancing the role of the elected members and to underpin generally the programme of local government renewal.
The main proposals put forward in the Bill may be summarised as follows :
The new Bill sets up new mechanisms and structures to ensure that elected members play fully their role of people’s representatives (local policy determined by elected council, manager will operate within policy framework, larger involvement of local interests in the policy- making process, wider powers to oversee executive with a key role for the Corporate Policy Group). It is proposed to elect directly Cathaoirligh/Mayors in order to enhance the democratic legitimacy of local politicians and to limit dual mandates to underline the distinctive and separate political nature of local government and to help local Councillors to focus on local issues. In the past, the public did not have an automatic right to attend meetings and were admitted only by favour of the Council. The Bill reverses the situation as it is proposed to grant the public and media the right to access to local authority meetings.
Another measure aimed at enhancing the role of local elected representatives is that the Bill is the first law to underpin the payment of remuneration and pensions for Councillors. However, detail on likely amounts will be set out in Regulations to be made by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government with the consent of the Minister for Finance.
Local government authorities
The principal units of local government in Ireland today are the 29 counties and the 5 cities. The local government authority of a county is the County Council and of a city the County Borough Corporation. They are usually referred to as County Councils and City Councils. Some towns within the county have their own local authority for the town area. In all, there are five different legal classes of local authorities. Apart from the County Councils and the City Councils there are also 5 Borough Corporations, 49 Urban District Councils and 26 Town Commissioners, which makes a total of 114 local authorities. The three latter classes are all town local authorities. They are not subordinate to the County Council level, but their functions are limited by virtue of their size and/or by a limitation in their statutory function. The county council is responsible for certain functions throughout the entire county, including the towns. Under the Local Government Bill 2000 town local authorities will in future be generally known as town councils.
3. Specific issues
Under this heading a number of specific issues will be discussed that are related to special features of Ireland’s local government.
3.1 Functions of local government
Traditionally, in a common law system local government only had the competences specified in statute law. Ireland was no exception. The traditional ultra vires doctrine limited local government to the functions that were specifically listed in statute law. In the 1990s Ireland loosened the grip of this so-called ultra vires doctrine. The powers of local government were significantly strengthened by the Local Government Acts of 1991 and 1994. However, the strengthening of powers has been linked to the financial resources available. The change is being confirmed in the new Local Government Bill 2000. A general competence has been formulated as (a) a power to perform functions related to express statutory powers, and (b) to take general action to promote the interests of the local community. In both cases there are the restrictions that are common in countries which traditionally have a general competence for local government.
Local authorities in Ireland are multi-purpose bodies. Their most important functions include physical planning, housing and building, road transportation and safety, water supply and sewerage, development incentives and controls, environmental protection and recreation and amenities. The distribution of the functions between the different bodies of local government is complicated. The County Councils and City Councils are vested with the full range of functions. In some cases some of these functions are also performed by the town local authorities. Like the situation in other European countries, virtually all important functions are regulated by statute law.
In contrast to many other European countries, the Irish local authorities have only minor involvement in education, health and public transport, electricity and gas distribution provision and no statutory input to policing matters. For instance, health functions were transferred in 1971 to health boards. Mainly it seems that in Ireland, for historical and economic development reasons, these matters are dealt with either by central government or by National Public Agencies (Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, FÁS: national training authority, Garda Síochana: national police service etc). Health services are delivered by eight Health Boards, half of whose members are elected councillors.
In my view, the nature of local authorities’ responsibilities is fundamental to the reality of local self-government. As is stated in the explanatory report of the Charter, it is not possible to define precisely what affairs local authorities should be entitled to regulate and manage but the intention of the Charter is that local authorities should have a broad range of responsibilities which are capable of being carried out at local level. In addition, it should be pointed out that at European level, the subsidiarity principle laid down in article 4.3 of the Charter which provides that public responsibilities shall generally be exercised, in preference, by those authorities which are closest to the citizens, has now been widely accepted by the member States of the Council of Europe. The fact that it has in the been possible to achieve a broad consensus on this in Europe becomes clear when we realise that almost all member States of the Council of Europe have signed the Charter and most have ratified it. Thus, in my view as a rapporteur, the Charter must be interpreted in connection with the subsidiarity principle, according to which it is initially assumed that the lowest administrative entity, ie the local authority, has the competence to take a particular decision. Only when the next highest authority proves that a decision has an impact beyond the limits of one administrative tier should this authority assume the responsibility for taking it. The result is that decisions at all levels are taken as close to the citizen as possible and then politically endorsed in democratic elections (principle of democratic accountability).
To limit local authorities to matters which do not have wide implications would risk relegating them to a marginal role. In addition, local government can better match local preferences which is economically more efficient than providing a standard, centralised level of services which takes no account of local variations in preferences.
However, it should be mentioned that Ireland is one of the less densely populated country of Europe and the cost of providing and operating a satisfactory infrastructure can be substantial. In addition, major population units in Ireland tend to be smaller and more widely separated than elsewhere in Europe. Thus, it is understandable that in a peculiar Irish context of economic and social changes the process of granting local authorities new wider functions should be seen as a realistic, gradual and a medium-term process.
The current government is committed to transferring more functions to local government at a realistic and progressive pace. This should be encouraged by the Congress but it is obvious that success of granting local government gradually new powers will depend to a large extent on simultaneous transfer of financial means available to these authorities.
3.2 Local finance
The financing of Irish local government has been controversial since the abolition of domestic rates in 1978 (a major local source of Council finances), made following a commitment in a national election campaign. The transfer of the liability for domestic rates to the Exchequer in 1978, coupled with the “capping” of non-domestic rates in subsequent years, led to a highly centralised system of financing of local government. Although since 1987 local government has been increasingly financed by local sources, the current system may be regarded as allowing limited discretion to local authorities to determine local service levels and related expenditure levels.
Currently Irish local authorities spend some £1,810 million (2000) (current) and £1,800 (capital) annually and employ 30 000 people.
In 2000, 47% of the current expenditure of local authorities emanated from the state: grants 28% and Local Government Fund payments 19%. Rates made 25% and charges for services 28%. Rates are only levied on commercial premises. The Local Government Fund is a state fund assigned to local government that was only recently created by statute. The fund is financed by the full proceeds of net motor taxation and an Exchequer contribution which is index linked.
State grants are allocated in two ways-(1) specific grants for specific schemes, such as housing, water schemes, road improvements and (2) block grants to cover the general expenditure of local authorities. State grants to local authorities embrace many aspects of their operations and paid by a number of different Government Departments. In 2000, the most important grants paid by the State to local authorities were for roads, housing, water and sewerage which matches with main local authorities’ functions.
According to some interlocutors, the recent success of Irish economy has resulted in greater buoyancy in the local finances of local authorities and money became available to local government through various programmes The improvement of the economy has also led to much greater demands of the population as people expect higher level of services because of the country’s prosperity. However, funds available through various programmes - mainly EU funded - involved the creation in the early 1990s of an almost parallel system of local non-elected local development bodies bypassing local democratically elected Councils and dealing with issues such as rural and social development, etc, which could be of interest to local Councils. The subsequent establishment of the City/County Development Boards in 1999 aims to integrate the local government and "local development" systems, under the local government umbrella.
At the present, it seems that local government is still to a large degree dependent on state financing. For the time being, the only discretionary local funding sources are rates on commercial premises and a miscellany of charges for services. It is probably very difficult to change that pattern in the near future. The establishment of a Local Government Fund seems to be a step in the right direction. It provides an assigned revenue system governed by statutory provisions enacted by the parliament and has resulted in significantly increased allocations to local authorities in recent years. Like other countries, Ireland has problems to establish a lasting system of equalising grants. An equalisation model has recently been developed in co-operation with local authorities and is subject to ongoing refinement.
3.3 The elected councils
Each local government unit has an elected council. The number of members varies from 52 in the Dublin City Council to 15 in the Galway City Council. Smaller town authorities have either 12 or 9 members. The council is elected by universal suffrage and the voting age is 18. Persons resident in the state, (including non- nationals) are eligible to stand for election and to vote. Proportional representation was introduced in 1920. The method used is the so-called single transferable vote in multi-member electoral areas. It can be described as a system that unites party elections with elections of a person. A problem is that no replacements or the like are elected. If a seat is vacated during the term, a new member is elected by the council itself (co-option). In principle, the term of office is five years. In practice, in the past the terms have frequently been prolonged by the state, but this is now no longer possible following the constitutional amendment in 1999. The latest elections took place in 1999 and from now on elections must take place every five years. Thus, the next local government elections will be held in 2004.
The local government elections are essentially party elections. The same parties that are active on national level are also competing for seats in the local councils. Nevertheless, 9% of the seats in County and City Councils were taken by non-party candidates in the 1999 elections. Political control over councils is important in determining the political identity of the holder of the Chair/mayor position, on the selection of the Council’s representatives to other statutory bodies such as regional authorities and on the chairs of the SPCs. It seems that in Irish tradition all of these positions are allocated by the dominant party within the council; consideration such as interest, experience, gender and youth/men women balance are not necessarily taken into account.
The Irish system of proportional representation seems to guarantee the representation of all important trends of opinion in the local community. The term of office for elected members of local government is now constitutionally guaranteed. A five-year term is reasonable. A particular feature is that vacancies during the term of election are filled by the Council itself by cooption. In the 2000 Bill there are provisions that the Party of the former Councillor shall nominate the new one. Co-option seems to be a somewhat old-fashioned way of filling vacancies in a democratically elected body. It could be argued that it is not fully in line with Art. 3, para. 2 of the Charter. I think that it ought to be studied whether in future a system of elected replacements could be introduced.
3.4 Directly elected chairpersons (Cathaoirleach)
Currently the Mayor/Chairperson of a local authority is elected on an annual basis by the members of the Council who performs representational role rather than executive ones like in many other European countries.
In the Local Government Bill 2000 it has been proposed that County Council and City Council Chairpersons shall be elected by the people by direct election. These measures seem principally to be intended as a means of increasing the interest of the general public in local government and as a counter-balance to the manager. These types of issues are not addressed by the Charter. Every country has to build on its own experiences. Some possible problems with directly elected Chairpersons ought to be mentioned, though. There can be problems in relationship to the other Council members if the Chairperson does not have a majority in the Council. There can also be increased problems in relation to the manager. Even if the Chairperson is not entrusted with any particular powers apart from leading the meetings of the Council, he or she may very well be looked at as a special political leader because he/she is directly elected. This can lead to controversies with the manager who is in charge with the administration, not least if the Chairperson has no majority in the Council.
I think that in the years to come the directly elected Mayor or Chairpersons, if this provision is adopted by the Parliament, should be given more executive powers in order to strengthen elected members political and policy making role and their involvement in local affairs. This scheme seems to be under probation in the framework of Corporate Policy Groups (see Section 3.8).
3.5 Remuneration and leave of elected members
So far, elected members of local government have had no remuneration for their work; almost all are part-time. They have only been paid an annual allowance designed to cover travel expenses, meals, postage, telephone and general expenses, etc. Expenses for attendance at conferences, seminars also apply. A local authority may, in addition, pay the Chairman an allowance which is fixed by the elected Council. Separate allowances are also paid to the Chairs of the new SPCs (Strategic Policy Committees).
However, members of the national Parliament who are also councillors and have salary and office resources with the Parliament to work full time on local authority issue seem to be favourised. I felt that, in general, the remuneration of local politicians in Ireland is a big issue. Many of them spend an important part of their time on local authority business on top of their normal profession and so far remuneration of elected members for their work has been unsatisfactory and probably not conform with Art. 7, para. 2, of the Charter. It seems likely that these problems will be rectified under a new Local Government Act.
Besides, there are no rules on leave from work for elected members. There is some limited provision for councillors working in semi-state companies or the teaching profession. However, there is no provision for those working in the private sector who depend on the goodwill of employers. Consequently, membership of councils is often made up of those who are self-employed. To my mind, this is a very serious issue, in that it means that young working people have less opportunity to be elected even though they certainly represent an innovative and dynamic sector of Irish society. It should be addressed, as it seems that there is a limited participation by women (16% of all local elected councillors and only three Chairwoman of County Councils), young people and wage-earners in local government policy making in Ireland. Local elected councils should be the venue for expression of all ages, genders and social profiles of the whole society.
3.6 Dual mandate
In Ireland there is a strong tradition that many MPs at the same time also perform functions as elected members of local government. 48% of the members of the Lower House and 63 per cent of the Senators are member of a council.
Since 1991 Ministers and junior Ministers may not hold local authority membership. Under the Local Government Act 1994, neither may MEPs and from 1999 MPs are no longer allowed to be Chairpersons of Councils. The new Bill would eliminate the dual mandate entirely from the next local elections in 2004. The holding of simultaneous membership of town and county local authorities, which is not infrequent, is not affected by the new Bill.
To bar MPs from serving as members of local government might seem to be a drastic step. However, one could be receptive to comments made by various interlocutors, who question the practice of simultaneous holding of office by national and local elected representatives. It may be indeed appropriate to restrict the practice of simultaneous office-holding in order to valorise the role of local elected representatives who assume their political responsibility only at local level.
3.7 Council and Manager
Ireland’s local government is characterised by the division of tasks between the elected council and an appointed manager who is Head of the Council Administration and responsible for the day-to-day running of the authority. Formally, the manager is appointed by the Council, but only one candidate is submitted by a central independent public recruitment agency, the Local Appointments Commission. The manager can be suspended or removed from office by a two-thirds majority vote by the Council. However, under new Local Government Bill 2000 a manager cannot be removed without the sanction of the Minister for Environment and Local Government.
The elected Council’s functions are the so-called ‘reserved functions’, which are specified in statute law. All other functions - ‘executive functions’ - are performed by the manager. The idea is that important policy decisions should be made by the elected council and the executive operates within these policy parameters and subject to oversight and direction by the council. Reserved functions include the annual budget, adopting the land-use development plan and borrowing money and a number of other important decisions. It may be noted that there is no executive committee of the council or the like provided for in Irish local government law, as operates in some countries but it may be expected that the CPGs will play this political role. The elected council is kept informed of executive actions, may veto proposed works, or call in and itself direct the performance of any executive action.
The Irish County/City Manager plays an important role as Head of Administration and is generally entrusted with the ‘executive functions’ of the County/City Council. The Manager post is not an elected office and the Council’s influence on the appointment is limited. His/her salary is also centrally fixed. At least to some extent, the Manager’s position in its present shape can be seen as a limitation of the elected members’ role. However, the executive role is carried out subject to the general oversight of the elected council and is subject to powers of direction. It is debatable whether the Manager’s present role is not in some dissonance with the European Charter (see in particular Art. 3, para 2). I should like to record that in the counties we visited the management and local elected members seem to act in close co-operation. Nevertheless, I think that in future the appointment and role of the Manager ought to be further studied in the light of the reforms currently underway to strengthen the role of the council and of a new system of Corporate Policy Group which are in principle designed to devolve gradually more executive powers to elected members.
3.8 Strategic Policy Committees, Corporate Policy Groups, and County Development Boards
Participation of representatives having special interests, such as of economic life, labour unions, non-profit-making associations, etc. in the preparation of decisions on national level, is seen as a major cause of the Irish economy success in the 1990’s. In 1999, a system of Strategic Policy Committees (SPC) was introduced at local government level. In a county there are normally four such committees (agriculture/farming (if applicable), environmental/conservation, development/construction, business/commercial, trade union, community/voluntary/disadvantaged). The intention is that they should have input in the early stages of policy formulation and strategic planning.
In fact, the SPCs are newly established committees of local authorities. They have the role to advise the elected council. They consist of elected members (two-thirds) and sectoral (one-third) representatives. The full elected Council is always the decision maker. The aim of SPC’s is mainly to develop the neglected policy making role of elected members and to involve local sectoral and community representatives in policy making. SPC Chairs (elected members) together with the Chairpersons of the Council, make up the Corporate Policy Group (CPG) which is designed to be a sort of cabinet of local authority to deal with financial and other cross cutting issues. The political executive body may be more inclined to take hard political decisions, which is probably difficult to do in the present context. For instance, we were informed that a small minority of local councils had failed to take decisions with regard to travellers’ settlement programmes, national roads development and waste management. At this stage, it is clear that SPCs will need time to develop their full potential. I am convinced and I understand that the current Minister shares my view, that CPG should be given gradually more executive role in managing local affairs and thus in the future the directly elected mayors will be granted more executive powers. If this process is completed in the years to come, one will be able to speak about a radical change in local authority structures and central role of elected representatives with regard to local management.
However, I should like to point out that without active participation of elected members there could be a risk that SPCs in reality will take over the decision-making from the Council. This can lead to a situation where the democratically elected members of the Council find that the real decisions are taken within a corporatist structure over their heads. For the time being, this seems not be the case. On the contrary, SPCs provide a platform where local initiatives can be discussed in an open way which was not the case in the past. It is also the role of CPG to co-ordinate politics of a local authority.
To coordinate a common strategy for economic, social and cultural development County Development Boards (CDB) were set up in 2000. They consist of representatives of local government and the various public bodies at local level. CDB's are designed to bring forward a social and economic strategy for the area in partnership with local agencies and social partners. Up to now, central agencies delivering services locally could operate without reference to local government. In future, regional offices of central agencies will work out with local authorities, through the CDB's, how the agencies' plans can be made consistent with the overall social/economic strategy for the area. CDB's operate under the local government umbrella and the concept aims to ensure that local government influences the public services provided in their areas. They are chaired by the Chair of the city/county council; the strategy is also signed off by the county or city council.
CDBs are not a full and direct transfer of more functions to local government but could be seen as a first step to devolve new powers to local government.
3.9 State supervision of local authorities
The state supervision of local government is very much in line with the situation in other member states of the Council of Europe. However, in the laws addressing local government there are several provisions that give the Minister the power to make detailed provisions that supplement the law. It seems that Irish local government is more controlled by such detailed regulations than usually is the case in non common law countries. However, such regulations constitute secondary legislation, must go before Parliament and are subject to review by the courts.
The central government plays a very important role for local government. The Minister of the Environment and Local Government has important regulatory powers. Even if the new Local Government Bill is passed by the Parliament, the regulatory powers will be kept. The Bill empowers the Minister to regulate many details. In the new Bill, there are provisions about regulations by the Minister in, e.g., sec. 44 (gender balance in committees etc.), sec. 48 (Strategic Policy Committees), sec. 133 (corporate plan), sec. 168 (code of conduct). It can be doubted whether the prolific use of regulations is in harmony with the spirit of the Charter, see, e.g., Art. 4, para. 2, and Art. 8, para. 2.
It also seems that a requirement that local government, when exercising its functions, shall “have regard to policies and objectives of the Government or any Minister of the Government” (sec. 68 (1); cf., however, subsection 2) affects the autonomy of local government negatively. However, for the first time the Bill provides that subject to law "a local authority is independent in the performance of its functions".
Administrative supervision by central government is not very far-reaching. Local government’s borrowing money and lending money to another local government is submitted to the Minister’s approval in advance. Local government is audited by the Local Government Audit Service. According to our interlocutors, during the last 60 years, local authorities have only been dismissed four times for failure to carry out specific statutory duties.
4. Regional authorities
In 1994, eight regional authorities were established with a specific mandate to promote co-ordination of public services at the regional level, and to monitor and advise on the implementation of European Union funding in the regions. The membership consists of County and City Councillors from the region who are appointed by the constituent local authorities. They are supported by an operational committee which includes the relevant county and city managers and executives of various public agencies. Additionally, for EU purposes, a number of interests are represented on special monitoring committees. The regional authorities are funded by the constituent local authorities with special support provided by the Department of Finance in respect of EU related functions. The authorities operate at a modest level with current annual operating expenditure levels which range from about IR£100,000 to IR£200,000 (1996) and their staffing levels typically include a Secretary and generally one or two other employees.
In 1999, two new larger regional authorities, known as Regional Assemblies were established with an enhanced role as regards EU programmes. They are the Border, Midland and Western Regional Assembly, and the Southern and Eastern Regional Assembly.
The regional authorities seem not to be a part of local government tradition in Ireland and before 1994 there had not been any primary legislation in this respect. Unlike other countries, the regions do not seem to have any historical basis or public sentiment in the Irish context. The counties seem to have deep-rooted local authorities in Irish local government tradition. The legislative foundation of the regional authorities remains rather weak as well as their functions, compared with regions in other European countries with a strong regional tradition. However, the regional authorities to some extent have surpassed the expectations given their weak basis and have had an impact at local level. They are involved in the decision-making process but perform basically advisory functions aimed at putting together regional development plans as a part of wider national plans.
In this respect, I should like to highlight that the establishment of regions has been a feature in many parts of Europe over past years. Regions are widely used as a means for decentralising functions of central government and this process has proven its efficiency in a number of countries. The structure emerging in many European countries is a three-tier system with an upper regional level having control over economic development, health, education, roads and tourism, but these functions vary from country to country. Even though in some countries the cost and value of an extra tier of government is questioned I believe that regional authorities have a broad potential and are able to fulfil strategic, economic and sustainable development functions which are an essential part of subsidiarity.
5. Irish local government and the European Charter of Local Self-Government – summary
According to our Irish interlocutors, the European Charter of Local Self-government has influenced local government reform programme. In 1996 the government decided that Ireland should sign and ratify the Charter as soon as necessary formalities are completed. This has been confirmed by Minister Noel Dempsey and represents a clear expression of a commitment to the renewal of local government in Ireland.
Ireland signed the European Charter of Local Self-Government in 1997. It has not yet ratified it. The main reason is that the Irish government wants the 2000 reform bill adopted by Parliament before ratification is proposed. In my opinion this stance is understandable, even if it is desirable that the Charter be ratified as soon as possible.
A number of observations have already been made in relation with the Charter and some are summarised here. They are meant to help promote further development of local government in line with the Charter.
- I call upon the Irish Parliament to explicitly accept the principle of subsidiarity when discussing and adopting the new Bill 2000. Indeed, it would be a great opportunity for Ireland to bring its legislation further into line with the European Charter of Local Self-government.
- Local government should be able to perform wide functions at local level, but it is understandable that gradual devolving of powers may take some years until a renewed model of local government has been put in place.
- Local government is still largely dependent on state money. It is crucial that there are strong statutory provisions on finance to secure local government’s autonomy.
- The local government elections seem to function well. However, a system of replacements could be considered, instead of the present co-optation system. Measures to promote wider participation in the elections should also be considered. Working class’, young people’s and women’s participation as elected members should be promoted.
- The system of a County Manager with executive functions can limit the elected members’ influence. It is important that elected members can fully play their leading role in local government affairs. This seems to be the aim of Corporate Policy Groups which are designed to involve more elected representative in daily running of local affairs.
- Even when the now proposed reforms of the principal statute law governing local government are implemented, local government is still much submitted to central government’s, and in particular the Minister for the Environment and Local Government’s, detailed regulations. I think that it is desirable that the system of detailed central government regulations be systematically reconsidered. In appropriate cases it could either be abolished or replaced by statute law.
- I think that the three Associations of Local Authorities should act in co-ordination and have a coherent and common approach on local government issues.
In Ireland very comprehensive reforms of local self-government are under way. I hope that they will be as successful as the Irish economy has been in the last decade. It is important that the European Charter of Local Self-Government be ratified as soon as possible. By its ratification it will be further entrenched as a model for democratic local government.
The draft Local Government Bill 2000, together with other government proposals aimed at strengthening local government in Ireland, is worth being encouraged and should be seen as a step forward towards genuine local democracy.
Programme of the first visit (29-30 January 2001, Dublin)
Programme of the second visit (3-7 March 2001)