Is the Council Falling Short on Dublin's Economy?

“We don’t seem to achieve anything,” says Sinn Féin Councillor Noeleen Reilly. “That needs to change.”

Reilly –  who sits on the council’s Economic Development, Enterprise and International Relations Strategic Policy Committee (SPC) – questions its effectiveness.

Mostly, the 15 members of the council just listen to and approve reports, and debate things they have no control over, Reilly says. And yet, the 10 councillors who sit on the committee are paid to sit in these meetings.

Fianna Fáil Councillor Paul McAuliffe argues that the committee is quietly doing solid strategic work to improve the city. But Reilly argues it’s time for some changes, to make the committee worthwhile and effective.

E-Motions

Strategic policy committees oversee the mechanics of the council’s various departments.

These give a group of councillors and “sectoral members” (people who aren’t councillors but are considered key stakeholders in the committee’s work) a chance to take an in-depth look at what is occurring in various council departments.

For the housing committee, this could involve discussing plans for the latest social housing builds. For the transport committee, it might be updates on proposed projects, like the clontarf-cycle-route/">Clontarf to Amiens Street cycle track, for instance.

Often councillors will submit motions at these committee meetings, which, if their committee-mates support them, then go before the full council at one of its monthly meetings at City Hall for consideration.

In essence, these committees keep councillors in the know, and allow them to help steer council policy. The economic committee, however, is slightly different.

It originated from 2014’s Putting People First document – the government’s action plan for local government. At that time, local enterprise offices (LEOs) were created and put under the control of the local authorities.

At Dublin City Council, these LEOs fall under the economic committee’s remit. Towards the end of each meeting, council management gives members an update on LEO operations in the city.

McAuliffe says that the LEOs run smoothly, though, and that the chair does behind-the-scenes work with officials there outside of the meetings.

Apart from that, not much else of significance takes place.

There’s often reports and presentations that members comment on, like the council’s tourism strategy, the issues surrounding Airbnb, and the council’s approach to markets. But the council already has other committees and sub-committees tackling these issues.

For some members of the committee, it’s unclear why they’re sitting in these meetings at all.

In late November, independent Councillor Paddy Bourke asked whether the terms and functions of the committee could be clarified.

Lack of Direction

Unlike other SPCs, the economic committee does not have a large department to work with within the council, says Fianna Fáil Councillor Paul McAuliffe, who chaired the committee from its inception until September this year.

And unlike other SPCs, he says, “it will never be a service-supply department” to the same extent. The council’s housing and transport departments, for instance, deliver services evident to Dubliners. The council’s economic and enterprise staff, in a sense, work behind the scenes.

“In many ways this work is not seen by the wider population,” says McAuliffe. “We’ve thousands of people on the LEO lists, and they’re all very aware of the work we do. But it’s not seen, in a way, by the public.”

Between January and November this year, however, the 10 councillors who sit on the committee claimed expenses after attending.

“Expenses are paid as a percentage of overall meetings attended out of those that have been held,” the press office said.

The committee’s chair, currently Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney, claims €500 per meeting.

Lack of Involvement 

Councillors on the economic committee aren’t heavily involved in the local-enterprise side of things as it stands, says Sinn Féin’s Reilly. Council management seem to keep their involvement limited by simply reporting back to them at these meetings on LEO progress, she says.

The LEO management updates to the SPC – the one-on-one creation and support of jobs – are what really matters, says McAuliffe. “But it can be difficult to present them at an SPC because it’s to do with individual issues,” he says.

Still, since its inception, the economic committee has delivered what some see as positive projects, like a stream of events held across the city and supported by the committee, says McAuliffe, as well promoting the Dublin Economic Monitor, tracking the city’s economic performance.

In October 2016 and 2017 the Uprise tech summit was hosted at the RDS, relocating its base from Amsterdam to Dublin in recent years. Again, says McAuliffe, these events were coordinated, in part, by council staff and councillors.

In July, members were updated on the council’s smart-cities initiative and, last month, debated and approved the draft casual-trading bye-laws.

But Reilly is frustrated with the committee’s lack of direct action. At last month’s meeting she suggested drawing up a work plan for the committee moving forward.

She sits on the council’s finance committee, and it’s done this, she says. “That needs to happen with the economic SPC,” says Reilly. “You don’t feel involved in it. You kind of lose interest in it.”

For Fianna Fáil’s McAuliffe, the issue is that economic and enterprise development aren’t hot topics at council. “How many votes are there in economic and enterprise development?”

Not like housing. “We had to increase the size of the Housing SPC because of the demand,” says McAuliffe. “We haven’t had that same appetite amongst councillors.”

Lack of Local Power

The economic committee is a statutory SPC, so the council had no choice but to set it up, says Martin Harte, CEO of Temple Bar Company, who sits on the economic committee.

Harte says that, while other council committees tend to get political, the economic one is more strategic. It has worked hard to establish itself since 2014, he says.

But the fact is, local government is simply not as strong as it could be, says Harte. “Local governments don’t have the powers that, say, I would like them to have,” he says. “They’re kind of hamstrung by current government legislation.”

While the LEO updates are worthy, says Harte, as long as Dublin is hindered in its powers, the economic committee can only be so effective.

Put the case that Dublin should have control over its economy and you’re met with push-back from central government, says Harte.

“It’s not in the interest of national government to liberate or have a strong local government,” says Harte.

“Imagine if we had an independent mayor and control over our own economic destiny. We’d have more voters, more money and more power than Leo Varadkar,” he says.

A Different Approach

For the economic committee to operate more effectively Sinn Féin’s Reilly wants councillors to be more involved, and she wants a structured work plan put in place.

The committee hasn’t passed any motions this year, and that is a problem, says Reilly.

It has approved the amended casual trading bye-laws, pending a few changes, which will come before the full council.

But “councillors should be bringing forward proposals,” she says. “We need to see something at the end of five years, that we have made a mark. I don’t think we have so far.”

Although much of the council’s work is the concern of other committees, says Reilly, by bringing motions forward it would show a willingness to at least engage with the issues that come before the committee.

Even if they have no say over these issues, it might provide more cross-council collaboration on issues affecting Dubliners.

For instance, Reilly says she requested a report at the last finance committee meeting into vacant homes, and received it. The economic committee could do things like that too, she argues.

Councillors also need to be more involved with the local-enterprise end of things, she argues, rather than just receiving updates at the end of each meeting.

“Dublin is the engine of the state,” she says. “So it is important that we have it. But we’re getting reports and we’re nodding and we’re saying, ‘We agree with this. We agree with that.'”

Another thing the economic committee could do is to establish an active land-management strategy for Dublin, which would fall within the committee’s remit, says McAuliffe.

This would involve examining the city’s vacant or derelict land, and sites with complex legal issues, and engaging actively with these sites’ owners to try bring these sites back into use.

It may take some time for the committee to find its way. Economic and enterprise development are issues that the council has only recently started grappling with. “We’re only three years into this,” McAuliffe says.

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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