Local / Regional Governance:
Local government functions in Ireland are mostly exercised by thirty-one local authorities, termed County, City or City and County Councils. The principal decision-making body in each of the thirty-one local authorities is composed of the members of the council, elected by universal franchise in local elections every five years. Irish Local Authorities are the closest and most accessible form of Government to people in their local community. Many of the authorities’ statutory functions are, however, the responsibility of ministerially appointed career officials termed Chief Executives.
The area under the jurisdiction of each of the authorities corresponds to the area of each of the thirty-one Local Administrative Unit (LAU 1) Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS) areas for Eurostat purposes. The competencies of the city and county councils include planning, transport infrastructure, sanitary services, public safety (notably fire services) and the provision of public libraries.
The Local Government Reform Act 2014 changed the existing structure, in line with reforms announced in October 2012 by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. These included the abolition of all town councils and the merger of some county councils. The reforms came into effect in 2014, to coincide with that year’s local elections.
On 28 June 2011, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan announced that Limerick City Council and Limerick County Council would be merged into a single local council. The proposed merger would come into effect following the 2014 local elections. The new entity would be headed by a directly elected Mayor, with a five-year term. The Minister also said that he would not rule out other local council mergers and that the proposal for a directly elected Mayor for Dublin was being re-examined.
On 26 July 2011, the proposed merger of North Tipperary County Council and South Tipperary County Council was announced.
On 16 October 2012, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government published Putting People First, an “action plan for effective local government”.
The changes for the 2014 local elections were:
- A reduction in the number of local authorities from 114 to 31, including the abolition of all town councils (a reduction of 83 councils).
- A reduction in the number of councillors from 1,627 to 949 (a reduction of 678 seats).
- All counties to be divided into “municipal districts”, with county councillors also being district councillors.
- Waterford City Council and Waterford County Council to merge.
- Limerick City Council and Limerick County Council to merge.
- North Tipperary County Council and South Tipperary County Council to merge.
- Councillors to no longer have the power to overturn planning decisions.
- Local services to be funded by a property tax.
- Existing local authorities in the Dublin area to be retained, but a proposed plebiscite on the introduction of a directly-elected mayor.
The civic and ceremonial status of existing cities, boroughs and larger towns was retained where they are merged with counties. Those municipal districts that included existing cities or boroughs merged would be “metropolitan districts” or “borough districts”. They will continue to have mayors as will those districts containing county towns. In all other councils the equivalent office is known as Chair/Cathaoirleach or Leader. Each municipal district was issued with a new statutory charter setting out its powers alongside any historic charters that already exist.
Following the abolition of domestic property rates in the late 1970s, local councils have found it extremely difficult to raise money. The shortfall from the abolition of property rates led to the introduction of service charges for water and refuse, but these were highly unpopular in certain areas and led in certain cases to large-scale non-payment. Arising from a decision made by the Rainbow Government domestic water charges were abolished on 1st January 1997 placing further pressure on local government funding.
The Department of finance is a significant source of funding at present, and additional sources are rates on commercial and industrial property, housing rents, service charges and borrowing. The dependence on Exchequer has led to charges that Ireland has an overly centralised system of local government.
It is worth noting that over the past three decades numerous studies carried out by consultants on behalf of the Government have recommended the reintroduction of some form of local taxation/charging regime, but these were generally seen as politically unacceptable. However, in 2012 the Local Government Management Agency was established to provide a central data management service to enable the collection of the Home Charge, the Non Principle Private Residence (NPPR) charge and the proposed Water charge.
The most recent report on local government funding, carried out by the Indecon Consortium, is due to be published in the near future.
Since 1999, Motor Tax is paid into the Local Government Fund, established by the Local Government Act 1998 and is distributed on a “Needs and Resources” basis.
In 2013, a local property tax was introduced to provide funding for local authorities.
Local government has progressively lost control over services to national and regional bodies, particularly since the foundation of the state in 1922. For instance, local control of education has largely been passed to Education and Training Boards, whilst other bodies such as the Department of Education and Skills still hold significant powers. In 1970 local government lost its health remit, which had been already eroded by the creation of the Department of Health in 1947, to the Health Board system. In the 1990s the National Roads Authority took overall authority for national roads projects, supported by local authorities who maintain the non-national roads system. The whole area of waste management has been transformed since the 1990s, with a greater emphasis on environmental protection, recycling infrastructure and higher environmental standards. In 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency was established to underpin a more pro-active and co-ordinated national and local approach to protecting the environment. An Bord Pleanala was seen as another inroad into local government responsibilities. Additionally, the trend has been to remove decision-making from elected councillors to full-time professionals and officials. In particular, every city and county has a manager, who is the chief executive but is also a public servant appointed by the Public Appointments Service (formerly the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission), and is thus answerable to the national government as well as the local council. Therefore, local policy decisions are sometimes heavily influenced by the TD’s who represent the local constituency in Dail Eireann (the main chamber of parliament), and may be dictated by national politics rather than local needs.