Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Media Report on Governance in Local Authorities: Statements

 

10:30 am

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)

The point I want to address is the concept of local government as we know it today. I spent five years on Louth County Council. The current format is fundamentally flawed. The reason is because the people who are supposed to hold the chief executive and director of services to account are technically the county councillors. They are the people who supposed to hold them to account to make sure things are happening the way they should. Let us be blunt and call a spade a spade. If I am a county councillor who wants to try to achieve things that need to be done on a county council, it will not be to my advantage to go out of my way to hammer a chief executive or director of services week in, week out to make sure he or she is doing a proper job. This is why the system is flawed. The county councillors, who are supposed to hold the executive to account, need the executive to be able to progress stuff through a local authority. This is why I firmly believe chief executives and directors of services should be accountable to a higher body, namely, the Oireachtas in order that at some stage they are called in once a year, be it before the Committee of Public Accounts or the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to explain why a particular county is consistently the lowest collector of rates in the country, consistently has the highest number of maintenance requests, is not building enough affordable homes or why so many people are on the housing transfer list and there has been no movement. They must be accountable to somebody at a higher level, which is why the Oireachtas has a real role to play.

Chief executives and directors of services are not accountable to anybody. They are not accountable to the public. They are technically accountable to county councillors. This is why overall reform is needed. I do not mean to be radical when I say this but I think we should see directly elected mayors in all local authorities, not just for Dublin or Cork. It should be done for places like Louth or the Minister of State's locality. The reason why is because we would then have an elected official who is running on a campaign pledge to introduce certain measures, be they more active travel ways or greenways or efforts to rejuvenate town centres. The politician must then deliver on the issues on which he or she campaigned. There is then a driving force within local authorities and a figurehead in a mayor moving forward. We see a similar situation with local authorities in Great Britain where political parties are in control of councils and allocate different portfolios to different councillors. They are councils that can really achieve things. The fundamental flaw in Ireland in terms of local authorities is the current system.

It is so easy for me to come into this Chamber and say the system is wrong and we need to fix it. I am advocating taking a sledgehammer to local authorities, breaking them into 1,000 pieces and building a brand new system. This is what we need to do. As Senator Paddy Burke rightly said, local authorities have been decimated at every point over the past 30 or 40 years. More powers have been taken away. At the end of the day, councillors do nothing more than rubber-stamping approval for the executive. I do not know why Senator Fitzpatrick is shaking her head; I am being honest about this. This is my experience as a councillor on a smaller county council unlike Dublin, which with the finance it has, is the Real Madrid of local authorities compared to my local authority. This is why it might be easier on larger local authorities but I am giving my experience of what happens in County Louth. In such a local authority, the executive can turn around to say that the issue can be kicked into a strategic policy committee, SPC, to be examined there, but then, six months down the line, nothing comes from it.

What I am talking about is fundamental change in local authorities. A lot of great things are done by local authorities but they are totally inefficient. That has been my experience in my county over the years. If we really want to be radical about it, and it is not pie in the sky stuff, we should do something different. What Senator Burke said is a good idea. It involves running it as a pilot in another local authority. There needs to be a key person with responsibility in any local authority who is held to account publicly. If this is a directly elected mayor, great. If it is a chief executive, he or she should be held directly to account by an Oireachtas committee where he or she can be called in every year and questioned on various issues concerning what is and is not going very well in his or her local authority. One thing I am very clear about is that there is no accountability in local government today and this needs to change. If we can start there, it would be a good process to move forward with.

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