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24 June 1999 Edition

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Whatever happened to democratisation of local government?

BY ROISIN DE ROSA

     
The SPCs at the county council and city council level, and the MPCs at the UDC and Town Commission levels are the lynchpin of democratisation which the Department has long recognised to be a necessary reform of local government.
For the moment, all the grand designs for the democratisation of local authorities are on hold. What's holding them up?

First everyone is waiting for new guidelines from the Department of Environment on how to set them all up, what they are to do, and how often they are to do it. So the city councils, UDCs and Town Commissioners, which all rushed into the fray last Monday to do the work they do best, shuffling chairs and appointments to committees amongst themselves, were asked to leave the all-important new bodies alone.

On Friday, county councils will all have to hold their first get-togethers, but they also will have to hold off on the allocation of councillors to the all important chairs of the Strategic Policy Committees (SPCs), which are to be paid positions, and on deciding which councillors are going to sit on which SPC.

But it's not just the absence of new guidelines which are holding things up. The new plans for local governance are still at the design stage, a stage which it appears lies entirely within the purview of the Department of the Environment, and its unelected officials.

One problem is that the powerful positions of Assistant Manager, County Secretary and County Engineer are all to be wiped out and replaced by Directors of Services. Not unnaturally, the holders of the weighty jobs have some concerns about their new roles, powers and, of course, pay, and have been in dispute with the Department since last September, when the old councils first set up their SPCs.

The SPCs at the county council and city council level, and the MPCs at the UDC and Town Commission levels are the lynchpin of democratisation which the Department has long recognised to be a necessary reform of local government. These are the committees which are supposed to be the core of councillors' work on planning overall policy matters, and are intended to include a one-third participation of local community groups representatives.

These new committees, the SPCs and MPCs, were set up last year, before the elections and met once - long enough for the chairs to draw their pay, but never got to the next stage because council officials refused to service them because of the dispute with the Department over the new job descriptions for Directors of Services.

In March, pending forthcoming elections, the Department broke off talks with the union, IMPACT, which represents the administrative and clerical officials who work for the councils, and has not since returned to the discussions. Meanwhile, democracy waits. IMPACT's national secretary, Al Butler, explains that the union is certainly not opposed to the local government changes, and calls on the Department to re-enter the talks. IMPACT represents 9,000 workers in local government, though not the county engineers, who are represented by SIPTU.

And then there is the long-awaited legislation on local government, which Minister Noel Dempsey has yet to introduce. The legislation is supposed to be based upon the report drawn up by the Oireachtais Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government, which has been on the Minister's desk since March. The Department says that the legislation is due now in the autumn, though you wouldn't want to hold your breath.

And no one, of course, can be quite sure, until the legislation appears, as to just what it will contain. Will it set the SPCs, MPCs, and their overall Corporate Policy Groups (CPGs) in stone? Will all councillors get paid, or only the chairs of the SPCs? Will the council chairperson (mayor of the council) become an elected position; Will TDs really be barred at last from council seats? Will the curious anomalies of local government boundaries and areas - for example how many people a town needs to have a Commission or a UDC, and why some counties have several, and others have none - will these now get ironed out?

All these matters await the Minister's hand, and above all, the vexed question of financing local government, where most are agreed that local authorities are strapped for cash and consequently have no power, yet no one would like to propose measures to raise local taxation.

And then of course, as some councillors will point out, the last thing most councillors want is any more power, because power means decisions, and many long-serving councillors are far happier to have none and to blame their local council officials, and of course government, for their failures to meet the crises in roads, housing, waste management, rural depopulation and child care.

But equally, what litle power councillors do have, they are quite reluctant to share with others, especially rowdy members of the community groups which represent those who suffer the effects of the crises facing local government.

It's a quagmire. Democracy may be a long time acoming. Meanwhile, over half of the UDC and Town Commission meetings are not open to the public.


What are SPCs, MPCs, Area Committees, CPGs?



Under tutoring from the EU, the Dublin government was forced to recognise that local authorities in this country were not very democratic, nor accountable for action or inaction, that structures did not promote participatory government or the principle of subsidiarity (decision-making at the lowest appropriate level). Instead government was centralised and councillors had very limited powers. There are plans, emanating from the Department of Environment officials, which have emerged over the last three years, to change all of this.

County Councils and City Councils are to appoint Strategic Policy Committees (SPCs), consisting of some councillors, social partners, and community and sectoral interest groups. They will deal with policy and overall strategy. Every councillor should get to sit on at least one SPC. They might meet quarterly and should have 12 members.

Area committees will deal with the representational side of councillors' work, operational questions. Area committees will consist of councillors elected from that particular area, though it is by no means clear how they might relate to UDCs or Town Commissions in the particular area.

The Corporate Policy Groups (CPGs) are described as cabinets, where SPC chairs, the ministers, will meet together on overall policy strategy issues. Town Commissions and UDCs will appoint Municipal Policy Committees, which again are to involve community and sectoral interest group representation. All the councillors will sit on at least one MPC.

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