If you are an ambitious sort of person you may want to take an interest in the post of Mayor of Dublin, for which there will shortly be an election. It is an important post, with significant influence over planning, development and services, and with an annual budget of approximately €70m. What, really? No, wait – that’s actually Dublin, California, where the term of current Mayor Tim Sbranti ends this coming November. Dublin has a population of around 50,000. If you were to be even more ambitious and take an interest in the job of Mayor of New York, you would be playing with a budget of $22bn, though admittedly you would be under pressure to get that figure down somewhat in the current times.
So what about our new promised Mayor of Dublin, Ireland? What will he or she be able to do, and how much will they have by way of resources to do it? The latter question is easy to answer: zilch. Although the announcement yesterday by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government suggested that the Mayor of Dublin will have a ‘range of substantial powers’, I am struggling somewhat to see what they might be, and how they could be at all meaningful (never mind ‘substantial’) in the absence of any discretionary budget whatsoever. The proposed legislation, published yesterday as the Local Government (Dublin Mayor and Regional Authority) Bill, sets out various responsibilities for the mayor, but these are about general strategy and policy, with little in the way of a direct ability to manage and develop.
All of this is part of the general ambivalence in Ireland about local government. We have local authorities, but they are viewed in many circles with some suspicion, and many of them didn’t do their reputations much good over the past decade or so by being key players in the promotion of the property bubble. The new office of Mayor of Dublin is to give some coordination to a strategy for the city, but this generally good idea is made almost worthless by circumscribing the powers of the mayor and refusing him or her any budget. What we need to do is to decide whether we want a centralised system of government with all power and control emanating from central government offices, or whether we want to devolve power to local areas. International experience on the whole suggests that the latter, if properly monitored, is desirable as a way of regenerating towns and cities and brining decision-making closer to the people affected by it.
It is time for us to decide whether we want this, and if we do, to put real local government in place. Starting in Dublin.