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Local government has the potential to transform our communities – time to harness this potential and deliver more power locally
If we want to develop appropriate, flexible and place-based responses to local and regional issues, then we must maximise the potential of local government. This requires giving local government the decision-making powers, responsibility and resources to respond to local issues and to improve service delivery and engagement at a local and regional level. The Local Issues Edition of the National Social Monitor looks at how local government is performing and what could be done to improve the situation.
Local response to local issues – not so straightforward in Ireland
Ireland is out of step with our international peers in terms of local government power. When we compare local government tax and spending functions in Ireland with our European neighbours we come second last in terms of decentralisation. More than 95 per cent of tax revenues in Ireland are raised by central government and 93 per cent of all public spending in Ireland is done at central government level.
The result is that Local Authorities are heavily dependent on central government to fund large sections of their work. This high degree of centralisation can leave local communities feeling as if they have little or no say in how local policy is developed. At a time of growing disconnect between the wider public and politics, we must maximise the potential of local government to increase engagement locally and to develop and deliver local policy solutions to local problems.
Local government and national challenges
The Monitor goes on to claim that although centralisation has diminished the role of local government over the years, decisions made by local councils on areas such as housing, roads, recreation facilities, water services, waste management, climate action, and local participation have a profound impact on communities across the country. Housing and climate change are two national challenges where local government decisions can have a profound impact.
Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis affecting every region in the country, yet 45 per cent of all Local Authorities failed to meet their build targets last year. Galway City Council was the worst offender, providing only a quarter of its targeted output and Westmeath County Council providing just over a third.
The Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) continued to outpace the provision of long-term sustainable homes, accounting for 66% of all Social Housing Output last year. The continued reliance on HAP means that money that should be used in the provision of long-term sustainable homes that would be an asset to the council is instead being effectively used to subsidise landlords in the private rented sector with no long-term return to the council or to the state. Local Authorities and Local Representatives must be accountable for their budgetary decisions in the midst of a housing crisis, both to their immediate constituents and to the wider population who will feel the impact of poor Exchequer decisions, which too often look to the short-term rather than plan for the future.
Climate change and flooding
Local Authorities are expected to play a key role in helping the country to adapt to climate change. They must develop their own local adaptation strategy which involves developing a local profile of climate hazards and vulnerabilities, identifying future risks and drafting, implementing and monitoring a strategy to mitigate against these risks.
Last year only nine local authorities provided a specific budget line for ‘Climate Change and Flooding’ in their 2018 budgets. These were Fingal, Offaly, Wicklow, Mayo, Cork County, Galway City, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, Limerick and Waterford. While the remaining 22 Local Authorities may have made provision elsewhere in other budget lines, it is important that this dedicated budget line is used in all local authority budgets going forward to clearly signal their intent to address this pressing issue. Local government has the potential to do much more to deliver and engage at a local level. In order to maximise this potential it must be given the resources and responsibility to improve service delivery at local level and to engage the people and communities it represents in developing policies that will shape the future of these communities.