Proposals for local government reform – a step in the right direction?

Yesterday saw the publication of the government’s long-awaited proposals for local government reform. Putting People First sets out in (over 200 pages of) detail proposals for the most radical overhaul of local government in Ireland in the history of the state. Doubtless there will be much debate over the merits of the proposals (and certainly the proposal to kill off town councils has already attracted criticism, much of that from obvious quarters). But what can’t be denied is that the proposals are ambitious and, if implemented, would do much to improve this vital dimension of governance.

Among the details that are emerging that are of interest (at least to me) are:

  • Proposals to rationalize the number of units at county and regional level
  • Regularizing a planning process that (hopefully) will be more fit for purpose than the current mess
  • Devolving more power to county councils
  • Some (quite vague for now) proposals regarding devolving revenue raising powers through the operation of the new property tax system (which if implemented properly would make a major contribution towards empowering local government in Ireland)
  • Re-designating country managers as chief executives (though it’s unclear if this will coincide with any moves to increase their democratic accountability)
  • A proposed referendum on whether to create the office of Dublin mayor
  • Some interesting hints about the possibility of using ‘participative democracy’ arrangements at local level (perhaps a move towards participatory budgeting?)
  • And much more than can be listed here….

The Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government is to be congratulated for producing this ambitious package of reform. At the time of the 2011 election I was involved with a team that coded the parties on their manifesto proposals relating to political reform. Our main finding in reformcard was that the one big (and vital) area where all the parties’ manifestos were weak was local government reform. This makes yesterday’s announcement all the more welcome.

Of course, it is one thing to announce a proposal, it is quite another to drive it through to implementation. As Eddie Molloy famously observed, Irish governments are prone to the serious illness of ‘implementation deficit disorder’. It is incumbent on this minister and this government to ensure that they don’t suffer from the same infliction. Let’s get on with it!

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