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Column: ‘Everything local authorities touch turns into a fiasco’

The performance of local councils ranges from incompetent to corrupt – and we need them out, writes William Campbell.

Image: dok1 via Flickr

IN A RECENT column for TheJournal.ie, Aaron McKenna advocates devolving most of the powers of Irish government to what he calls our “castrated” county and town councils. He is wrong.

Irish local authorities (LAs) are bloated, incompetent, corrupt, sclerotic little fiefdoms who attempt to explain their interrupted record of failure by trotting out the lie that they ‘lack funds and powers’.

It is a lie. LAs spend in excess of €10billion a year, about 20 per cent of all government spending. McKenna doesn’t ask what they do with this vast amount of money, but I researched the topic for my book and was appalled at every fact I uncovered.

According to the Department of the Environment, LAs are responsible for:housing, planning, water supply and sewerage, recreation facilities, development incentives and controls, roads, environmental protection, agriculture, education and health.

LAs long ago lost responsibility for all except the first five items listed. Where they retain authority, their performance ranges from disastrous incompetence to catastrophic corruption.

They lost taxi regulation in 2004. For decades, they constricted the supply of taxi licences, creating havoc for consumers. Taxi-plate owners (rarely the drivers) employed Frank Dunlop to ‘lobby’ councillors. Taxi licences fetched up to €100,000 on the black market, attracting criminals eager to launder money, and commuters shivered in the rain.

There are 90 local authorities in Ireland with planning functions – responsible for creating zoning plans and giving planning permission. The banks, the developers, and the politicians who bailed them out are all getting their share of blame for the bust, but the LAs are getting off far too easily.

It was LAs who made many millionaires by converting farmland into estate after shoddily-built estate, far from employment, inaccessible on public transport, without a thought for schools or amenities for the residents, while vast tracts of inner-city brownfield sites decayed. LAs allowed the slapping up of concrete jungle ‘holiday developments’ that are ugly enough to guarantee tourists will never arrive.

Even where there is no money to be made in bribes, even when the task is mind-numbingly easy, and vital to our democracy – keeping an accurate list of voters – they can’t get it right. One entry in three on the electoral roll is wrong. Monkeys with typewriters could do better.

‘Politicians want to reward failure with even more power’

LAs report the cost of processing each student grant application – a basic bureaucratic function, implementing a rigid nationally-set formula. In Westmeath it costs €70.51, not cheap. In Tipperary North, it costs €484.25. Such vast variation indicates vast inefficiency.

Water and sewerage is one area where the LAs have genuine power, so many rural residents and tourists spend their summers vomiting cryptosporidium from their taps into their toilets. Everything local authorities touch turns into a fiasco: delays in driving tests, the disastrous implementation of penalty points, a country with fewer playgrounds than golf courses, the list goes on.

In the private sector, perform poorly and you will get your responsibilities and your budget cut. This minimises damage, and motivates performance. Politicians, unused to a world where merit is rewarded, reverse this idea. They want to reward failure with more power, and even more money.

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I’m not surprised that politicians want more power and more money, but I am shocked that an otherwise clear-thinking Aaron McKenna has fallen for this. I am shocked because I expect that, like me, his private sector experience would tell him that increasing complexity in our society and economy is changing the way everything works.

Technology that allows companies to do things more efficiently also forces them to do less. McKenna’s company sells products from hundreds of companies, who source components and services from thousands more. If one company tired to take on the entire process of manufacturing even one piece of complex electronics, it would collapse under the workload.

Nobody expects each county in Ireland to have its own laptop factory, its own smartphone system or its own version of Facebook. Equally it is not reasonable to expect such tiny populations to contain the all the skills needed to manage complex tasks such as zoning , planning, or running a modern water and sewerage system.

The reason for the incompetence and inefficiency is that too-small organisations are taking on too many tasks. Corruption happens because the skill of management is also being spread too thinly; and when local officials often live in the same village as applicants, they can easily be bribed or put under to moral pressure to make the wrong call.

Ireland certainly needs radical reforms. One of the first should be to send the gelded old nags from our local councils to the knackers’ yard, not pretend that they are fit to run the Grand National.

William Campbell is the author of Here’s How: Creative Solutions for Ireland’s Economic and Social Problems.

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