Building the role of local government

October 16, 2012

The Action Programme declares that a clear and fundamental purpose of local government “…is to give effect to the right of local self-government and the right of citizens to have a say in the conduct of public affairs”. It goes on to acknowledge, however, that the existing system delivers a relatively narrow range of functions and that this acts to inhibit the role of local government relative to other local government systems in Europe. There is, as a result, a weak link between the provision of local services and the capacity to raise funds locally which, in turn, impacts on levels of local accountability. As a result the potential of local government in Ireland is limited in its current form and function and it has limited authority.

These factors are further undermined at central level where centrally driven delivery can result in less efficient public service delivery due to among others, lack of local knowledge and expertise which can be important in determining the nature and extent of service delivery. Such thinking has been central to reform processes in other OECD countries which have long come to realise that the further the remove of service decision-making from the local community, the more likely inefficiencies will arise. Furthermore, increased centralisation of decision-making, the Statement notes, may result in the burdening of policy-making at national level along with crowding out national capacity to take a strategic view, something which, as successive recent reports on the Irish Banking collapse have identified, is not just relevant to citizen based service provision!

As a result the Statement envisages a more expansive range of policy responsibilities for local government. It sets out the conditions and criteria to be considered in assigning new functions to the local authorities. These include:
• Responsibility at national level, including funding, policy and accountability, should not normally alter. Local authorities would report to the relevant government department much in the way such reporting currently applies in regards to roads to the Department of Transport and generally across the OECD.
• Functions should be compatible with the role of local government with a preference of delivery at local level through a local authority.
• Local authorities should have a coherent set of responsibilities rather than miscellaneous functions which are often the result of parent agencies simply seeking to off load “problems”
• Resourcing will have to be a factor to avoid unnecessary cost shifting to the local authorities
• The transfer of responsibilities will have to include consideration of staff needs with appropriate adjustment of the Employment Control Framework
• There has to be an explicit mandate for local government underpinned by service level agreements, setting of standards and performance monitoring and evaluation
• Duplication of activities or functions between local and central government and agencies or between the various tiers in local government must be eliminated.

The above criteria reflect common practice across the OECD and, as such, with the implementation of the reform programme Ireland will finally have “caught up” with the norms of other European countries.

Promoting the Economic Role
The reform programme finally acknowledges the central role local government can play in the economic renewal of Ireland. It highlights the unique characteristics and strategic position which allow it to play a key role, as local government does in every other part of the OECD, in economic development. In that new role the local authorities will:

• Support micro-enterprise development through the integration of the enterprise boards and local authority business units into a unified service delivered through local enterprise offices placed within each local authority and supported by a director for economic development
• The systemisation of local authority policies to underpin economic regeneration
• Using best practice, now well demonstrated in several local authorities, of leading direct economic renewal
• Mobilise local economic development in association with other agencies and in doing so will take responsibility for the existing work of the development boards which will now be phased out
• Adopt an economic development plan in conjunction with the City/County Development Plan marking a radical shake up of local planning policy
• Establish a Strategic Policy Committee with specific responsibility for economic development.

Associated with the move towards an economic role at local authority level, a regional spatial and economic strategy will be put in place in the proposed three regional assembly areas. These strategies will be aligned with the county/city plans and the local authorities will be responsible for local implementation of any regional determined actions under the regional strategies. The regional strategies, the statement envisages, will become the regional policy for the region concerned at government level thus providing, for the first time a clear linkage between national economic policy, regional policy and local spatial planning. This will be a significant change to the spatial planning of the State and should facilitate better integration of the National Spatial Strategy with the business planning of the economic development agencies at national level, something which for some agencies is missing in their operational planning.

Implications for local and community development
The reform programme outlines a significantly changed institutional setting for local and community development and the delivery of local services. The alignment process between local development and local government is to be considerably re-enforced with local government taking on added responsibilities in oversight, dispersal of funds and planning. A socio-economic committee is to be put in place in each authority while an inter-departmental committee at national level is to address whole-of-government issues impacting upon local and community development. A badly needed national policy on cross government working will be developed while at local level each city and county will adopt a 5 year City/County Local and Community Plan which will cover all State funded local and community development interventions. These Plans, as is the case in economic development, will be incorporated into the City/County Development Plan, again a radical challenge for spatial planning policy at local level.

These moves will clearly impact upon the current organisation of local and community development introducing common systems of accountability, measurement and assessment as well as a unified approach to administration and the alignment of the local and community development programmes. The challenges of these reforms should not be under estimated. At a time where demand for local services will continue to increase, due to the prevailing economic conditions, the release of resources to facilitate community development has got to be a priority. Bringing in the changes envisaged will require particular care and attention along with a renewed commitment of the part of the actors concerned towards the sustainable development of the relevant communities.

Importantly, a successful transition, on the part of local government, in the area of community and local development, will allow government consideration of transition of other, national, services in areas such as education, training, health, employment activation, among others. This therefore is providing a huge opportunity to local government to become more like its counterparts in the rest of the OECD.