With just one city or county council for every 148,507 people, Ireland has far fewer local municipalities than similar-sized European countries, and Irish local authorities perform fewer functions than municipalities across Europe.
Research published by Fórsa trade union shows Irish councils have less autonomy from central government than their counterparts in 39 European countries.
The research paper, Democracy Works If You Let It by Dr Mary Murphy of Maynooth University, finds that only 8% of Irish public spending occurs at local government level, compared to an EU average of over 23%, and that a quarter of the Irish spend is not fully under local authority control.
Dr Murphy made a presentation of the research at the union’s Local Government and Local Services divisional conference in Kilkenny this afternoon (Thursday).
Irish local authorities perform fewer functions than municipalities across Europe, with their roles largely confined to physical infrastructure and environmental and recreational services.
The research paper shows that Irish local authorities perform fewer functions than municipalities across Europe, with their roles largely confined to physical infrastructure and environmental and recreational services.
Dr Murphy said this has a negative effect on local employment, service quality, value-for-money, environmental protection, and local jobs and economic development. It has also contributed to declining local election voter turnout.
“Local government can be an important source of economic development and local jobs, while local authorities across Europe are playing a leading role in transitioning to low-carbon renewable energy. We need to rebuild Irish local democracy and citizen participation to build strong local economies based on good jobs and decent incomes, and to address climate change.”
We need to rebuild Irish local democracy and citizen participation to build strong local economies based on good jobs and decent incomes, and to address climate change.
Fórsa National Secretary Peter Nolan repeated the call made by the Fórsa chairperson Seán Reid last night for the Citizens Assembly to have a role in the development of local democratic reform.
“Irish people take great pride in their counties and cities, yet this element of our democracy has been systematically eroded by centralisation, privatisation and austerity. They deserve structures and systems that deliver quality local services that match the best in Europe. This makes the Citizens Assembly an entirely appropriate forum in which to develop our thinking and direction on how to successfully build stronger and better local government,” he said.
More Power To You campaign
Fórsa’s More Power To You campaign is calling for legislative changes to facilitate directly-elected mayors and restore and expand town councils, which were abolished in 2014.
The peer-reviewed research was commissioned by Fórsa, Siptu and Connect, who say local democracy has been eroded by:
- A decade of austerity, which cut budgets and slashed council staffing by a quarter;
- The centralisation of services like water, driving licences and higher education grants;
- The privatisation of services like refuse collection and housing; and
- Excessive executive direction and new management processes that have increased bureaucratic powers at the expense of political representatives.
The More Power To You campaign is seeking commitments from political parties, and candidates in the upcoming council elections, on a range of local government reforms covering waste, water, housing, and energy services. These include:
- Legislative changes to facilitate directly-elected mayors;
- The return and expansion of the town council system, which was abolished in 2014;
- Increased revenue and funding powers, with parallel systems of accountability and transparency, to move the percentage of local authority-managed public spending towards the European average;
- An immediate end to the outsourcing of council housing maintenance and a medium-term shift to a new local authority-led public housing model;
- Stronger regulation of the waste sector to ensure that every household has access to an affordable waste disposal service, as a precursor to the reintroduction of improved public provision;
- A constitutional referendum on the right to water, which should ensure that water and waste water services remain in public ownership and control;
- Investment in local authority environmental and sustainable energy infrastructure and staff, to facilitate the maximum use of the SEAI ‘Better Energy’ programme.
More Power To You campaign page
Download the full report: Democracy Works If You Let It
Download the executive summary here