Last month, councillors cut short a housing committee meeting. Not because they wanted to rush home, or pick up kids, or go out glad-handing.
Instead their complaint was simply that they hadn’t been given the information they needed to be able to discuss the issue at hand. In this case, it was the Housing Land Initiative, a flagship city project to try to develop large patches of council land with more than 1,300 homes.
Councillors had been handed reports with updates on the initiative — and on the rapid-build housing meant to house homeless families — just before the meeting. But some said they still had plenty of unanswered questions.
“I think we should adjourn this meeting now until such time that [council] management can provide councillors with answers,” said People Before Profit councillor Tina MacVeigh.
“I just don’t see why we just keep accepting that we can continue our business in the dark. We’re constantly being asked to make decisions in the dark . . . Sometimes I feel like we’re either being backed into a corner or not actually participating in the business of this SPC [strategic policy committee],” she said.
Normally, councillors just ask for another report and move on. This time, everyone agreed with MacVeigh and the meeting was adjourned over a lack of information. That doesn’t happen often. We’d never seen it before.
In the Dark
A more common complaint than no information is a rush of information right before a meeting, with too little time to look through it all.
“This doesn’t happen by accident,” says John Lyons, also a councillor for People Before Profit. He is not a member of the housing committee, but he sits in on the group’s meetings.
“This is how the bureaucracy works . . . we can’t ever make the best decisions with reports given the day of the meeting,” he says.
He’d prefer to sleep on things before making a decision. He can do that for issues that come before the arts committee, he says, because reports usually come days beforehand. It does seem to feed mistrust between councillors and council management.
Lyons says that it makes him suspicious that those working on the executive side of the council don’t want councillors to have all the information about a proposal before they agree to it.
At that housing committee meeting, councillors requested an update on the Housing Land Initiative and details of the expressions of interest to date, but they received a report that they had already had last June, he says.
(At the meeting, manager Dick Brady said that a further breakdown of the expressions of interest couldn’t be made available as it was commercially sensitive. Developers and housing bodies had spoken to the council openly about sensitive market issues, after all.)
Sinn Féin councillor Greg Kelly has similar complaints, though. He isn’t a member of the housing committee, but he has been to three of its meetings to try to get more details about St Michael’s Estate, which is part of the Housing Land Initiative.
He and his constituents want to know what will happen to the estate’s community centre. But he hasn’t had much luck squeezing specifics out.
“I either don’t get an answer or I’ll get an answer that says one will . . . come next month and it doesn’t seem to ever materialise,” he says. “They refuse to answer.”
To Hold Up or Not to Hold Up?
Last month wasn’t the first time that People Before Profit councillors dug in and refused to move forward without all the information they wanted.
At last October’s monthly council meeting, the party refused to vote for the provision of “modular housing” because they didn’t think they knew enough to decide.
“This is just being rushed through with no consideration being given to the pros and cons,” said then-councillor Bríd Smith last year. “There’s no report from management, we don’t know where these things are going, we don’t know if there’ll be access to services.”
Smith asked for a special meeting to discuss the issue after councillors received more information. In this case, other parties disagreed.
At the time, there was the feeling of a need for speed, and need to press on with a proposal that had been working its way through the council for a year as the number of homeless families in emergency accommodation just grew and grew and grows.
The majority of the council voted in favour. In the end, People Before Profit councillors abstained.
In some ways, the party’s position on “modular housing” was vindicated. The months that followed saw local residents protest over the location, headlines about costs, and significant revisions of the timeline.
The modular housing turned out to be rapid-build timber-framed housing, and in mid-May councillors passed a motion asking management why and how this transition happened. “It was never formally presented,” says Lyons.
And while the media reported on documents that show Dublin City Council had put the estimated cost per rapid-build house at just shy of €243,000, councillors say they are frustrated they haven’t been able to confirm the final cost with managers.
In late April, the council’s housing chief, Dick Brady, said the figures would be available in 10 to 14 days.
“I find it hard to believe that they still don’t know,” says Kelly of Sinn Féin. Looking back, Kelly says he would still vote in favour of modular housing. Something had to be done and the homes are high quality, he said.
But he would have amended the motion to say that the houses be distributed fairly throughout the city. He has a problem with the rapid-build homes all being located in areas that already have a high share of social housing.
Some Valid Reasons
Sometimes, council managers have defensible reasons not to give councillors all the information they have asked for.
When information is commercially sensitive, for example, it often can’t be disclosed. That’s why councillors still aren’t clear on the final cost of the rapid-build homes in Poppintree, says Fianna Fáil councillor Paul McAuliffe.
“The problem is that they are in a contractual situation,” he says. “If it releases figures it will just end up costing the council more money. So I can totally understand where they’re coming.”
Sinn Fein councillor Daithí Doolan, chair of the housing committee, says other companies would try to undercut other companies bidding for procurement if financially sensitive information was available.
“That doesn’t mean it’s better, just cheaper,” he says.
As he sees it, the vast majority of the time, the city managers and officials provides adequate answers, but every now and then they will use this as an excuse not to provide information.
“If it’s financially sensitive, if there’s a procurement involved, if it involves a contractual arrangement. They’ll all hide behind that,” he says. “They often claim that – and sometimes they’re right. It’s just unfortunate that the legislation ties us up in knots.”
McAuliffe says councillors should be provided with more information. But also understands the reasons why management might be reluctant to do so.
“Sometimes councillors misuse that information,” he says. They can focus on the negative aspects of things to get a story in the media, he says.
At the South East Area Committee in March, councillors were presented with fully developed plans for a pavillion in Merrion Square. The plan proved to be contentious and Labour councillor Mary Freehill asked why councillors weren’t consulted sooner.
“I don’t know how often we have to say that the sooner the council officials start working with the elected body here, the better,” she said. Her logic? It would be more efficient to consult with them and then to make plans.
In response, parks superintendent Leslie Moore said he had tried consulting councillors in the past, but it hadn’t worked out.
“A few years ago, I did an informal consultation with the South East Area Committee and later that evening, there were headlines in the Herald saying the city council is going to fell 300 trees,” he said.
To avoid these kinds of stories about possible plans, the department now presents councillors with more fully-formed plans that can be tweaked and amended.
“Because these plans are important for the city council and . . . for the development of our parks, we need to manage how we put out that information.”
At the March meeting, it was the first time councillors had seen the presentation on the Merrion Square pavillion, but they were asked to vote on it, so the council could proceed with a Part VIII planning application.
Freehill wanted more information and consultation, but went along with the planning application after asking that she receive more information before councillors made the final decision at the following month’s full council meeting.
Long-serving Labour councillor Dermot Lacey says there does seem to be less information available to councillors than there used to be years ago. He says he often finds himself in a situation where he’s expected to vote on something without having all the details.
He says that the greater opacity is down to a number of changes at the local authority, mainly the fact that there are fewer staff and more councillors these days.
“I think [this] has made the relationship between councillors and management more difficult,” he says. “Staff are now doing a multiplicity of roles, which means there isn’t necessarily time to build a relationship, and a lot of information in the past was built on dialogue.”
Councillors need to be smart about how they seek information and use of motions and questions, he says. In the case of some newer “activist councillors”, he believes they are yet to work out how the system operates.
Little Info, No Info
Councillors have also been cut out when it comes to the social housing list. They used to be able to get detailed information on the housing allocations and transfer list, so they could see where people were on the lists.
In the case of the housing allocations and transfer list, councillors simply don’t get it any more.
Last year, the council stopped sharing this list on the recommendation of the data commissioner.
“Councillors believe that that ruling should be challenged,” says Lacey of Labour.
Elected members used the list to make sure that allocations were fair, but Kelly, McAuliffe and Lacey all say they can no longer stand over the list as they have no oversight.
“There are ways they could have dealt with [data protection] without taking all the information off,” says Kelly. “We tried to change that, but I actually don’t know if there are any mechanisms, besides protocol.”
There are other ways Dublin councillors can get information. They can request records through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2014, but they may still come up against the commercial-sensitivity wall, and that also takes at least a month.
McAuliffe tried to get details of the housing allocations and transfer list for 2015 through FOI, but had no luck.
“This is the perfect example of how we’re looking for information and for lots of very valid, technical reasons, they won’t give it to us,” said McAuliffe. “But ultimately it means we can’t do our jobs.”
In his appeal, he cited section 136 of the Local Government Act 2001, which obliges the manager of a local authority to provide councillors with information they request. But this too failed.
McAuliffe says if you write to the manager citing section 136, and he still doesn’t give you any information, then you can take it to court. But he describes this as a “mad process”. Section 136 of the 2001 act, as well as section 51 of the Local Government Reform Act 2014, compel the manager to share information with councillors.
Kelly points out that management does always provide responses to questions, but it doesn’t always contain the information you’ve asked for.
“They’ll give us bits of answers,” he says.
In response to questions asking who enforces this law and how councillors can make use of it, a Dublin City Council spokesman said compliance is monitored by the Meetings
Administrator in the Chief Executive’s Department and any complaints should go to them A monthly management report also goes to council members as part of the act, said the spokesperson.
Going In Blind
Councillors across political parties voice similar complaints about the availability of information, particularly when it comes to housing.
But People Before Profit seem, at the moment, to be the most vocal.
“We shouldn’t allow management to get away with it,” says Lyons. “We should have an input.” He says that he wishes more councillors would cause a ruckus, so management might take notice.
At a recent South Central Area Committee meeting, the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board gave their third presentation on the new national children’s hospital to the group. Councillors were quick to express their gratitude for the board’s thorough consultation.
“Every step of the way the information was there, the consultations were there and I’m glad to have been part,” said United Left councillor Pat Dunne.
Kelly congratulated the board and said: “There’s people within Dublin City Council who could learn an awful lot from the consultation that you’ve given to us and given to the local community.”
These comments were largely aimed at the housing section, says Kelly.
In total, he says he’s seen about eight presentations on the project and senior management was always present. This is compared to two information meetings on the “modular housing” project.
“I’ve asked four times for a follow-up meeting and that hasn’t happened,” he says.
For him, the hospital’s consultation was effective and didn’t have any objections to the project.
“I’m confident that the hospital will be successful,” he says. “I’m not confident that the [rapid-build] housing is going to be delivered to the best ability for my community.”
He says the council’s reluctance to provide information hinders his role as a councillor. He wants to drum up his community’s support for rapid-build housing, to bring them on side, but it’s hard when he can’t answer their questions.
And if they have concerns and the council doesn’t come back with any answers, this makes matters worse. “Councillors get stuck in the middle and they get the blame,” he says.
When you think about it, says McAuliffe, rapid-build housing is something that we should all be supporting. But it’s become a negative news story.
Clearly something happened along the way that meant houses in Poppintree turned out to be sturdy, permanent timber-frame houses rather than the modulars, and more costly than had been pitched. But councillors weren’t told.
In normal circumstances, McAuliffe thinks they would be supported because they were built so quickly.
“It has become a story that it shouldn’t be,” he says. “But the problem is that they need to find a way of keeping us on board and they haven’t done that.”