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Ireland is set to choose 949 councillors - but what powers do they have in the current 'weak' system?

What do councillors actually have the power to do? Let’s have a look.

IT’S NOW LESS than two weeks until polling day in the 2019 local and European elections, as well as the referendum on divorce, and the plebiscite if you live in Cork, Limerick and Waterford.  

On polling day, the Irish electorate will choose 949 people to represent them on 31 local authorities throughout the country.

Once elected, they’ll hold office until 2024. So what does a councillor actually do? What are the limitations of their powers?

Let’s take a look.

So what does a councillor do?

When someone is elected to a city or county council, they will collectively have responsibility for the formulation of policies, such as where the annual budget for the council is spent, the development plan for areas within the council’s remit, relevant bye-laws etc. 

That budget, however, comes from government, commercial rates, goods/services it provides and local property tax. 

Outside of central government policy, councillors do have powers to influence – up to a point – issues such as housing, the road network and environmental policy.

Responsibility for parks, libraries and recreational centres also fall within the council’s remit. Councillors also have the power to back candidates to get on the ballot for the presidential election – as was the case last year when Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman and Seán Gallagher all got the backing required to run. 

They also act as representatives of people in their locality and aim to promote the goals of their constituents in the forums available to them. 

Each month, all the members of the council are required to attend a meeting.

At Galway’s most recent council meeting, for example, councillors reviewed a number of reports such as the latest Galway city joint policing committee annual report and an update from the chief executive of the council on the city’s local development plan. 

Motions were also put forward for a number of issues – including whether the council should call on the government to declare a national housing emergency, or whether the council should call on the GAA should make sure all its matches are on free-to-air TV.

These motions, however, do not necessarily have a direct effect, and act more as the council signalling its stance on a matter going forward.

Individual councillors also serve on various subcommittees of the council, with specific responsibility for decisions on the council’s actions in the areas they cover.

And what about the concrete actions councillors take that affect their constituents?

For example, over the last term Dublin City Councillors made numerous decisions that affected the running of the city.

This included when councillors voted to approve introducing 30km/h speed limits on all residential roads within the canal ring of the city.

Votes can range across a variety of issues, such as when councillors voted to approve parking charge increases earlier this year, voted to provide free sanitary products in buildings under its remit, with another decision made to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of the Freedom of Dublin

How are councillors limited in what they can do?

However, councillors don’t even hold all the power in the council.

Kilkenny County Council has this summary of the role of a council’s chief executive: “The Chief Executive supports the elected Council and is required to implement the policies of the Council, have regard to the views of members, assist & advise members and report on actions taken.

Executive functions include functions relating to employees, the granting or refusal of planning permissions, the allocation of local authority houses, signing of contracts and generally any function involved in the day-to-day administration and business of the Council.

So, effectively, the chief executive is the person responsible for following through on the actions decided by councillors, with a number of separate executive functions. 

Chief executives are also paid many multiples of what councillors are.

The flat rate for councillors is €17,000 per annum – as it’s technically seen as a “part-time job”. This, however, can rise due to a number of allowances and expenses that can be claimed. 

The lowest paid chief executive, on the other hand, is paid €128,000 a year. In Dublin City Council, the chief executive is paid €182,000 a year. 

Dr Aodh Quinlivan, local government expert and lecturer at UCC, told that the local government system in ireland is fairly “weak in and of itself” with councillors “getting a fairly small slice of the pie” in terms of powers and functions from central government. 

The powers that councillors have in Ireland are relatively few compared to some of their European counterparts, according to Dr Quinlivan. 

“A lot of functions that would be provided at local authority level in other European countries would include things like transport, policing, education,” he said. 

Councillors have also had their powers pared back over the years, with a recent switch coming in the form of then-Minister Phil Hogan’s abolition of over 80 town councils and other bodies to arrive at the 31 local authorities we have now. 

A research paper for trade union Fórsa written by Maynooth University’s Dr Mary Murphy highlighted how events in the last decade have seen councils stripped of certain roles and functions.

Refuse collection has been privatised, water has folded into central government and the body Irish Water, new bodies have been set up for student grants and drivers licences. 

Councillors also cannot influence planning decisions, as this function rests with the chief executive.  Murphy wrote: “Local government is substantially stronger and has more control over decisions in other European jurisdictions.”

She noted that, even in the case of housing where local authorities in Ireland do have a role, central government still dominates the funding provision and policy in this area.

What can they do on housing?

Turning to the current housing crisis, what a councillor can or cannot influence in terms of housing is indicative of the powers and limitations they have.

As noted above, councillors cannot influence planning decisions. So if a private developer lodges a planning application, councillors have no power to affect the outcome of that. 

As local representatives they can campaign and highlight developments they think should be blocked or granted but cannot actually affect the decision.

Where they can affect the provision of housing is through council activities such as the provision of social housing, developing on council-owned land, and acquiring vacant properties to bring back into social use.

Councillors vote each year on the annual budget for the council, including the money spent on housing.

This year, the Department of Housing is providing €205 million to Dublin City Council for housing and building, for example

With the money doled out from central government, councils can vote on whether to agree to proposed developments on land the local authority owns, for example.

Dr Quinlivan said the power of councillors in the area of housing “can only go so far”.

He said: “Certainly, they can enhance their own budgets, and aim to turn around vacant property faster, and boost their housing stock.

But while councils could have done more on housing, they get an unfair rap. They have good proposals sitting on a desk at the Customs House, and waiting for green light at central government level. It all comes down to finance. 

Late last year, councillors in South Dublin County Council voted to approve a new apartment block at an area attached to Sean Walsh Park in Tallaght. 

In the Dublin Inquirer’s audit of candidates and what they’d do to affect housing policy in their area, prospective councillors outlined the various ways available to them and how they’d increase the supply of social and affordable homes. 

The Green Party’s Claire Byrne noted: “Dublin City Council is dependent on government schemes and funding to deliver social and affordable homes. At the moment, with the funding caps from central government, and the quotes for building from developers, it is very difficult for the council to build new social housing.

We need to ensure that the public land owned by the council is used for public housing. This is the best tool available to councillors, as most other decisions have been taken away from us by central government.

Should the system be reformed?

Last summer, the government commissioned an independent review into the role of local representatives, what they do and how they’re paid. 

Outside of the limited powers they have, this review from senior counsel Sara Moorhead also highlighted the “important representational role in that they represent the needs of the electorate”. 

“As democratically elected and accountable bodies they have the authority and legitimacy to speak and act on behalf of their communities,” the review said.

“The elected council thus acts as a democratic forum for the representation and articulation of local interests and can provide civic leadership.”

Moorhead concluded that there were two divergent views she’d found on the role of local government in Irish society and that the question of the type of representation wanted at local government level is “highly problematic”.

“On the one hand, there is a view that it should be a full time position paid accordingly,” she said in the review.

“However, this would deprive persons who are involved in other walks of life from active involvement in their community and forming part of local government.

However, as the demands on those persons’ time become greater, it appears to be unrealistic to expect them to attend to their functions in the working day.

Dr Quinlivan added: “Cork city has had a fivefold increase in territory, but the number of councillors hasn’t increased. So it’s now roughly one councillor to 6,800 citizens. Some candidates have openly said they cannot canvass all the people in their area. It also means that unfortunately a lot of the new younger councillors are now opting out. The workload is too high.”

He supports initiatives such as the directly-elected mayor proposal for the cities of Cork, Limerick and Waterford but said that needs to be joined by some real local government reform. 

If the people of these cities vote to have a mayor, they’ll be choosing to democratically elect someone to have powers similar to that of a chief executive in a council. Quinlivan said he supports the proposal but it is only the first step towards real local government reform that will benefit people in their communities. 

Any changes the government could implement to the work and pay of councillors, however, would come too late to affect the incoming cohort set to be voted in over the coming weeks.   

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