Thursday, 12 May 2022
Media Report on Governance in Local Authorities: Statements
Gerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
The Minister of State and I were the chair and the vice chair of the HSE's regional health forum for Dublin - mid-Leinster a long time ago and worked well together. A lot of people in this Chamber have come from a local government background and are very familiar with how local authorities work, both what does and does not work well. If we want to be honest about it, even in the past ten years we can see that when Irish Water was created, it took responsibilities away from local authorities. It must be said that this was not done by a Fianna Fáil Government. The strategic housing development, SHD, process, which I opposed very strongly in this Chamber, was well meant. I remember a phrase at the time that whatever the problem was, An Bord Pleanála was unlikely to be the solution. We are talking about An Bord Pleanála and the challenges it faces at present. Many of those SHDs that were approved by An Bord Pleanála in contravention of development plans have been rightly held up by judicial reviews because the courts have said they should never have been granted in the first place.
I have no issue with chief executives coming in and talking to an Oireachtas committee but this further strips out oversight and brings it all back to the centre. Perhaps we need a stronger audit or governance committee or a stronger corporate policy group in local authorities that can hold to account those directors of services or chief executives who are not up to scratch. I also want to put on the record that of all the chief executives with whom I worked, from Derek Brady through to Owen Keegan, Kathleen Houlihan, Philomena Poole and more recently the new chief executive in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, I note that getting to the top of the tree in local government is no mean feat. They are usually incredibly hard-working and diligent but sometimes, they are trying to steer a very large ship. Dublin City Council has about 6,000 employees. With the best will in the world, the chief executive can only do so much. This is not taking responsibility away. We tend to see problems in public sector organisations because of FOI. I am sure private organisations are not perfect either. We just do not get the same transparency levels about them. We need to acknowledge what works well in local authorities as well as acknowledge that when there is failure, there should be a level of accountability. I remember how when I was on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, of which the Minister of State was a member at the same time as me, we brought in Robert Watt when he was Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and asked him about managing out, which is a phrase used in the private sector, those kind of employees who may be burnt out or not up to scratch. His reply was "we don't do that". The private sector can pay people off but we do not do that. Sometimes people are not in the right jobs. They might be very good if they were moved into a different job but the job they have is not the best fit for them. We need more flexibility in how we hire people, how we manage staff and how we look after their needs and to make sure that if people are not performing to the level we expect them to, there will be counselling and training to bring about further improvement.We need to acknowledge that the local government sector provides many services but, through the years, whether it be Irish Water, waste services, regional waste management plans or strategic housing development, SHD, processes and planning, central government has repeatedly sucked powers away from local authorities. In some cases, that may have been because the local authorities were not willing to grasp the nettle on various matters. The Planning Regulator is another example of that. I have no issue with the Planning Regulator as such; it is more that local authorities are not being left to do their own thing. There may be a need for better oversight of what they are doing but that should be at local level and with those who are elected in their areas. They understand their counties. I refer to the Acting Chairperson in the context of Kildare, me in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown or another person in Dublin city, Waterford or wherever it happens to be. All Members are aware of the idea of subsidiarity. Moving powers down the chain is probably a good thing but, historically, we in Ireland are very bad at doing that. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
In the context of the concept of a directly elected mayor for Dublin, I am concerned in respect of from where the powers of the directly elected mayor will come if there are four local authorities. If those powers come from the councils, there will be nothing left in the councils because they have so little already. If the directly elected mayor will get powers in respect of policing, education, public transport, tourism promotion or whatever it may be, there will be nothing left for the councils. There are many things that are done by central government but that could be devolved down. I have rarely seen any Government of any colour in this State devolve powers from the centre to local government, however. I know the local enterprise offices may be an example of that to a certain extent but they only replaced enterprise boards that were there anyway. Typically, power has left local authorities and gone up the line. Rather than identifying what is wrong with the system at local level and fixing it, the power is taken off the local authorities and they are left with less to do. All they have now is grass cutting, graffiti removal, drain unblocking and so on. Even in the case of water leaks, they have to be reported to Irish Water, which then telephones or emails the local authority and asks it to fix the leak under a service level agreement. In the old days, one could just ring the local authority and get it done directly.
All Members present have a lot of experience. I was on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for 12 and a half years. Senator Burke was on Mayo County Council for a long time. The Acting Chairperson was a councillor, as were the Minister of State and Senators Fitzpatrick, Cummins and Warfield. I know Senator Flynn has experience of being involved with local authorities in other ways. There is so much experience here at local and national levels. Let us acknowledge what is good but always be driving to make it better.