Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Why Phil Hogan needs to get serious about local government reform

The State's delay over local government reform is inexcusable and the delay in acting on this renders Phil Hogan's continued uncertainty and prevarication anything but dynamic. No one doubts that reform is needed. Putting a shape on it is his responsibility and he has yet to fulfil it. So far, his dilatory approach has been inexcusable.

One can have little doubt that most members of the Government share with him reservations about the drastic action needed. Ministers who seek to engage in reform -- on health, about taxation, over the Croke Park Agreement -- run into storms of protest. Even those who talk about reforms, as Mr Hogan has done pretty well endlessly, see the tides and storms of protest gathering, and they hesitate.

Mr Hogan has been Environment, Community and Local Government Minister for 19 months. He has been an active and senior member of his party with previous government experience under John Bruton and 23 years in the Dail.

He inherited a well-advanced reform programme from the Local Government Efficiency Review Group, established in December 2009. This produced, in July 2010, a review of the cost base of local government, its expenditure and the numbers employed. Fianna Fail was busy spending money in all directions and did no reform. Then the economic roof fell in, the banks collapsed and we were four months away from a bailout.

The new Government could have proceeded with the necessary laws implementing action already defined. Instead, in an exercise in classic national evasion, they elected to set up an implementation group of their own in April 2011. It did not report until July 2012! Mr Hogan then went to the Glenties Summer School -- a circus for announcing government intentions -- and said the Government was "extremely likely" to cut the number of councillors and local authorities. He had been mandated by a "reforming Government to drag the system of local government into the 21st Century". It would deliver more and put people first. His programme had a title. You've guessed it: "Putting People First"!

On September 14, speaking at the annual conference of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland in Ballinasloe, Mr Hogan told delegates that his own experience as a councillor, TD and minister had made him acutely aware of the "many deep-seated shortcomings" in local government. He referred to Mahon Tribunal malpractice quite unrelated to the reforms he was facing. After 19 months in power, all he could say was that "an action programme would be considered shortly by the Government". An announcement was "imminent". It is still imminent.

It could be said that the country as a whole, without the benefit either of experience over many years or a government mandate, was fully aware of most of the many deep-seated shortcomings of local government and tired of further discussion.

In 2010, facing economic collapse, all public expenditure, particularly local authority expenditure, should have been reined in. Instead, the reverse happened. In late September, the National Transport Authority, among other state institutions, engaged in expenditure as though nothing had happened to our economy. The authority offered seven local authorities in Dublin grants to pay for projects nominated by the local authorities under the Sustainable Transport Measures programme. Other grants may have been offered elsewhere. The approach was open-ended.

At the same time, many local authorities have run into debt in simply keeping up with normal operational funding. We have to remind ourselves that the Local Government Efficiency Review Group's report, two months previously, had focused its 106 recommendations on efficiency and savings "in the short, medium and long term".

As a result of the confusion and uncertainty, there is a mixture of gross extravagance on the one hand, and debt on the other. In some parts of the country, and notably in my own area in south Co Dublin, there is evidence of the squandering of taxpayers' money on ill-judged schemes.

There is also evidence of the absence of effective regulation. For the most part, our elected councillors have been rendered powerless in their main purpose, which is policy-making; while our full-time officials are often inventing that policy and failing to act with prudence, care and judgment. This leads to prodigal waste and failed attempts at reform.

The councillors are more worried than the local officials. They have reason to be. Within the vague outlines given by Mr Hogan, including his inappropriate reference to the Mahon Tribunal as though its revelations had more than a very minor significance in the lives and working practice of those we elect to local government, there is nothing much to hold on to.

In contrast, he wants local government to 'reinvigorate the support of enterprise, business and job creation', and he designates for it 'a vital role to play in supporting economic development'. Far from looking at reform and concentrating development into central government, where it might be well regulated, Mr Hogan wants to 'empower local government in an entirely new way to take ownership and lead development for their local communities'.

I have the gravest of doubts about this mindset and the tortuous progress, so far, of its definition, or the announcement of something more than the platitudes offered so far.