A directly elected regional Mayor for Dublin, as well as elected Mayors for all Irish cities and counties, are among the many new proposals for the reform of local government published today by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
John Gormley said he favoured the London model, where a Mayor is directly elected for the city and has executive powers. Speaking on RTÉ Radio, Gormley also said that any Irish Mayor should have the power to impose a congestion charge if necessary.
The new Green Paper presented by the minister today proposes the introduction of a regional Mayor for Dublin, elected directly by the people, with strategic functions including planning, housing, waste, water provision and waste water disposal. The paper, titled "Stronger Local Democracy", proposes that the Mayor would also act as chairperson of the Dublin Transport Authority.
The Green Paper also makes a case that greater local leadership, accountability and connection with the citizens can be achieved through the provision of directly elected Mayors for all counties and cities.
The possibility of introducing revised structures for the local governance of key gateways, such as Limerick, Waterford and Sligo, is also considered.
Examples of revised structures include unitary authorities for county and city, a single elected Mayor to lead both county and city, or cross-boundary metropolitan Mayors.
It proposes that town government could be strengthened by allowing for greater devolution of local decisions from county to town level, within overall county level strategies.
A range of initiatives are also discussed, to allow people to play a greater role in local decision making, including local plebiscites, petition rights, participatory budgeting and town meetings.
"Stronger Local Democracy" stresses the need for continuous change, flexibility and imagination in service delivery. Greater movement towards the sharing of services between local authorities is also advocated.
The paper sets out further the issues for debate on the financing of local government, which will feed into the work of the recently established Commission on Taxation.
Options for the introduction of local election spending limits are proposed, as is greater oversight of local government ethics compliance by the Standards in Public Office Commission.
In my opinion all these suggestions are very welcome, and in fact long overdue in Ireland. I even think that the ideas set out in the Green Paper are not going far enough. Why is it that more than 86 years after achieving autonomy from Britain, and nearly 60 years after the declaration of full independence as sovereign republic, Ireland is still copying the old English system of local government?
In contrast to Britain and Ireland, all other European countries have a much more developed and by far more democratic, representative and efficient system of local government. In most EU countries every city, town and village - no matter how small - has a directly elected Mayor with executive powers and a local council that controls him. Apart from that, counties, regions and provinces have extra councils as well, all directly elected and responsible to their people.
So why is it not possible to introduce the same system in Ireland? Well, it is possible and should be done rather sooner than later. It is only the lack of will and imagination on the side of our politicians that prevents it. So as much as one should welcome John Gormley's new proposals, they are only a first step to real local Democracy. There are hundreds of Irish communities with a population of several thousand that have never had any local government at all. There are urban councils in a number of towns of course, but their powers are very limited. And any village, regardless of size, has absolutely no representative structure and is entirely dependent on the decisions of the County Council. This is a medieval system in urgent need of reform.
Next summer we will have local elections again, and there is plenty of time to put new structures into place beforehand. So now is the time to talk to your local councillors and to your TDs and tell them that you want more democratic representation in your community. If you don't stand up now and make your voice heard, all we will get is the generally positive, but still only half-baked concept that John Gormley presented today in his Green Paper.
"Stronger Local Democracy" is a nice title, but unless we urge the government to go the extra mile and make it as strong and accountable as local government is on the Continent, we will end up with a few more nice jobs for the boys in power, but no real local Democracy that deserves the name.
The Emerald Islander