CANDIDATES who are elected to local authorities this weekend will have high hopes of making their mark in politics and serving their communities, but will find that they are hampered in doing so by a lack of autonomy. The problem is that central government largely controls the purse strings and local authorities are beholden to it to obtain funding for capital projects outside of the normal operations they are charged with fulfilling – but which they even struggle to do when it comes to roads, housing, general infrastructure and the environment.
Social Justice Ireland (SJI) published a ‘National Social Monitor – Local Issues’ edition coming up to the elections, which examines the role of local authorities in addressing local needs and found that Ireland is out of step with its international peers in terms of local government power. The critical factors are that more than 95% of tax revenues in Ireland are raised by central government and 93% of all public spending in Ireland is done at central government level.
As a result, local authorities are beholden to central government, which tends to dictate to them how and where the money it dispenses is to be spent. SJI, quite rightly, maintains that this high degree of centralisation can leave communities feeling as if they have little or no say in how local policy is developed. Coming at a time of a growing disconnect between the wider public and politics, it says ‘we must maximise the potential of local government to increase engagement locally and to develop and deliver local policy solutions to local problems.’
The Labour Party also wants to bring back town councils which were abolished during their time in government with Fine Gael, but which they have since acknowledged was a serious mistake. Town councils had got out of hand in terms of remuneration, but could be usefully re-introduced on a community-based model with statutory powers, but without pay, just vouched expenses.