Local Government in Ireland

AuthorAngel-Manuel Moreno

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1. Brief historical evolution
1.1. Introduction

The history of local government in Ireland is almost the same as the history of local government in the United Kingdom until 1922 because Ireland was part of the United Kingdom until then.1The basic system of local government in Ireland therefore is that enabled by the British Parliament in 1898.2The Poor Relief Act 1838 created the first Government agency with responsibility for local affairs in Ireland. The 1838 Act covered the whole country with a network of poor law boards whose members, called Guardians of the Poor, were made up partly of justices and partly by members elected by ratepayers. Initially, the boards operated under the control of Poor Law Commissioners sitting in London, with the Irish branch office in the Custom House.3In 1872, the Poor Law Commission was transformed into the Local Government Board for Ireland. The establishment of the Local Government Board followed from the increasing range of duties that had extended the responsibilities formerly exercised by the Poor Law Commissioners far beyond basic care for the poor and into areas such as hospitals, disease eradication, medical services, sanitary services, and housing. The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 transferred the powers of a range of minor local government bodies to representatives elected as provided for in that Act. This was the last important change in the local government system before the State was established in 1922. It and the earlier and very important Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878 were mirrored on similar legislation enacted in the UK.

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In April 1922, the Ministry of Local Government of the newly independent Free State took over the central administration of local authorities. In 1924 the Department of Local Government and Public Health was established. This new Department took over the task of supervising the local government system which had been performed since the 1870s by the Local Government Board under the former British administration. The functions of the Department of Local Government and Public Health evolved and it is now called the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG). It has overall responsibility for overseeing local authorities in the exercise of their many functions.

1.2. Post 1922

After the foundation of the State, local authorities in the 1920s and 1930s concentrated on an expansion of the housing programme for housing the poor and working classes, the development of other infrastructural services, an attempt to introduce town planning and the provision of health and welfare services. In 1947, health and welfare services were removed from local authorities and their administration vested in the Departments of Health and Social Welfare. Responsibility for national roads and motorways was transferred to the National Roads Authority in 1994 and a comprehensive town and country planning system was established in 1964. After Ireland joined the EEC in 1972, the task of implementing the vast bulk of EEC Directives relating to the environment was given to local authorities which are now the competent authorities primarily concerned with implementing EU legislation. Local authorities now implement legislation on matters such as land use planning, waste management, water and wastewater services, building control, many roads, some educational services and public libraries, fire services and public safety, social and affordable housing, the provision of recreational and social amenities, aspects of protection of the built and natural heritage, flood protection and climate change adaption and mitigation strategies. In recent affluent years, local authorities got more involved in community development, social inclusion, the promotion of culture and the arts although these areas have been the first to suffer in the current recession. The Local Government Act 2001 was the first major legislative departure from the system of local government inherited from the British. Reform of local government has been on the political agenda for the last 40 years and every single Minister for Local Government has promised to do so but little has happened. Some reforms were enacted in the Local Government Act 2001 partly to facilitate the ratification of the European Charter of Local Self-Government but there is an almost universal recognition that the Irish system of local self government is broken and that radical changes are needed if it is to fulfil its functions properly.

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2. The structure of local government
2.1. Central Government

The Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (hereinafter, «DECLG») has a very major role in oversight, foresight and policy formation in relation to local government activities and overall responsibility for financing local government,4the promotion of local government legislation and the transposition of most EU law relating to local government. It also has a role in ensuring that local authorities implement legislation when they are the relevant competent authorities for implementing EU legislation. Local government in Ireland is considered to be highly and excessively centralised and the DECLG exercises a great deal of control over local government functions mainly because it provides the vast bulk of local government finance.52.2. Regionalisation

Local government in Ireland consists of a number of local and regional authorities at three levels. There are eight unelected Regional Authorities established under section 43 of the Local Government Act 1991 comprising elected members of the city and county councils in the various regions. The size of the Regional Authorities varies from 21 members in the Mid-East region to 37 members in the Border region. Members are not elected. They have powers to review development plans, to prepare regional planning guidelines and economic and social strategies and to encourage local authorities to co-ordinate their activities and act jointly when appropriate and particularly relating to climate change adaptation. They have no real powers to enforce co-ordination so that local government is not extensively regionalised although there are political imperatives to do this particularly in the areas of climate change, waste management and land use planning.6

2.3. De facto regionalisation

Local authorities have a general power to act jointly with other local authorities and there is a tendency for the three Dublin local authorities to cooper-

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ate and coordinate with each other more than other authorities.7The Dublin Transport Authority established under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 ensures that the Dublin authorities cooperate on a regional basis for transport matters. The Authority examines all draft development plans made by local planning authorities to ensure that they are consistent with the Authority’s strategy for the Greater Dublin Area and with Regional Planning Guidelines. The need for the co-ordination of roads’ programmes in multiple local authority areas resulted in the setting up of the National Roads Authority in 1994.8Two Regional Assemblies were established in 1999 under section 43 of the Local Government Act 1991 comprising existing elected members of city and county councils to promote the provision of public services in their areas, manage regional EU financial supports and monitor the general impact of EU assistance programmes.9Regional assemblies are supported by Operational Committees comprising non-elected members from prescribed public authorities with social and economic mandates.10Generally however, the role and functions of the various Regional Authorities in local government are marginal.

2.4. Local government

Most local government legislation is implemented by 114 local authorities established under the Local Government Act 2001. The members of these local authorities are elected by proportional representation every five years. All Irish citizens and residents are eligible for election provided that they are resident in Ireland on polling day and over 18 years of age.11Holders of certain offices and persons guilty of certain crimes are disqualified from holding office.12Councillors come mainly from the established political parties. The jurisdictions of local authorities are laid out in section 10 of the Local Government Act 2001 and in the Sixth Schedule to the Act. The...

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