“It’s very worrying” that An Bord Pleanála granted permission for more than 500 apartments to be built in Raheny in North Dublin, says Fianna Fáil Councillor Sean Paul Mahon.
Back in April, the board okayed the development proposed by Crekav Trading on Sybil Road, and as Mahon sees it, that’s further evidence of the erosion of councillors’ powers.
“They’ve disregarded our development plan,” says Mahon. Putting together the Dublin City Development Plan – “to guide how and where development will take place in the city” – is one of the councillors’ jobs.
And it’s one of the few ways the elected local councillors have left to shape the city, in an era when more and more decisions are being made by council executives rather than councillors, and by national bodies rather than by local councils.
“It’s alarm bells,” Mahon says.
Unelected and Unaccountable
An Bord Pleanála’s decision comes on the back of a measure announced by Fine Gael Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy in June 2017, allowing some developments to essentially by-pass Dublin City Council.
This move to fast-track large-scale housing projects means planning applications for over 100 units can now go straight to the board for consideration.
The idea behind the move is to get more homes built faster in response to the housing shortage. But it also has undermined local authorities’ powers, some say.
The board’s recent decision essentially overturned the Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2022, says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.
“In my view, that’s wrong,” he says. “Now this unelected, unaccountable board are determining that decision.”
It’s not the first time that Lacey, who has sat on the council since 1993, has seen local authorities’ powers diminished by central government decision-making, he says.
Take the Waste Management (Licensing) Regulations, 2004, for instance, which took waste management out of local authorities’ hands, Lacey says.
In Dublin, this led to the privatisation of the bin companies, and the construction of the Poolbeg waste-to-energy incinerator, he says.
Neither of those things are likely to have happened if the decisions had been left to councillors, says Lacey.
“I couldn’t see the council voting for the Poolbeg incinerator and I couldn’t see the council voting for privatisation,” he says.
(In fact, councillors overwhelmingly voted to prevent the Poolbeg incinerator being built, but were overruled by the council’s chief executive.)
Local authority powers have only diminished further since then, he says.
Local People, Local Services
As Lacey sees it, local authorities can deliver local services better. “It’s as simple as that,” he says.
Take sports grants, for instance, says Lacey. These are decided upon by “civil servants in Kerry. How do they decide that one football club in Dublin deserves more than another?”
(Ireland’s Sports Capital Programme, which deals with nationwide sporting grants, is based in Co. Kerry.)
Independent Councillor Christy Burke, who has sat on the council since 1983, argues that, at least historically, there has been less red tape involved in local-authority decision-making.
“You know how to put your finger on the pulse and that’s vitally important,” says Burke. “Local knowledge is all knowledge.”
There are only two major powers councillors currently have left, says Burke: shaping the council’s annual budget and the Dublin City Development Plan.
With one of these recently undermined, says Burke, “there’s more power in a light bulb”.
Take Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy’s recent letter, which said councillors could no longer discuss large planning applications that come to the council, says Burke.
“That’s a big one, as well,” Burke says. “You look at student accommodation going up on your doorstep, development all over the Docklands. All of that matters on the ground.”
The gradual diminution of local powers “leaves the councillors as little more than political spokespersons”, Cuffe says.
When it comes to local services like waste management, water and housing, “more and more we’re dependent on central government to either give us some money or make the decisions”.
Water, says Cuffe, is an example of a service that should operate as close to people as possible.
If there is a water leak, says Cuffe, he reports it to Irish Water. “The irony is that services are outsourced by Irish Water back to Dublin City Council who respond to Irish Water who then respond to me,” he says.
It makes sense then, says Independents 4 Change’s Dunne, that decisions about local services are decided as locally as possible.
Dunne favours a model of “participatory democracy”, whereby individual annual budgets are given to electoral areas and local committees, made up of local residents, and they then have a hand in decision-making.
“That’s where you bring decision-making right down to a local level,” he says.
Over the years, services have suffered as a result of over-centralisation, says independent Councillor Ruairí McGinley.
Take a local service like bin collection, he says. That is, arguably, the most tangible local service in Dubliners’ eyes.
Now, because there are four major separate bin-collection companies operating in the city, the service “is fractured in people’s eyes”, says McGinley.
It is not streamlined or standardised, he says, “and the disadvantage is also that the private sector hasn’t got the 100 percent area coverage the council had”.
That has contributed to a persistent dumping problem, says McGinley. And that puts a further toll on council resources, he says.
For some, communities are the biggest loser when powers are taken away from local authorities. Or when the central government’s plans don’t come to fruition.
With the recent announcement, as part of the government’s Ireland 2040 programme, of a National Regeneration and Development Agency (NRDA), McAuliffe says there are concerns that communities will be left disappointed.
It’s proposed that the NRDA buys up land for future housing provision, but “I’ve seen when a community is sold regeneration and don’t get it,” says McAuliffe. “It’s something we’ve to be very careful of.”
Sending decisions on developments of more than 100 units straight to An Bord Pleanála undermines councillors, and it’s worrying, says Sinn Féin Councillor Seamus McGrattan.
“Fast-tracking large-scale developments takes people out of the loop,” he says. “We, as councillors, can give our opinions but no one has to listen to them.”
McGrattan reckons that local powers will be reined in further over time.
For now, says Fianna Fáil’s Mahon, the decision on the development in Raheny is likely to prompt some introspection by the council.
“We’re now going to have to go back and discuss our development plan,” says Fianna Fáil’s Mahon. “Whether it’s null and void.”
Approving the city’s development plan and the zoning of land are clearly “reserved” powers of elected councillors, meaning councillors get the final word on these issues, he says.
“Unfortunately there is no appeal mechanism at the moment,” he says. “It’s a major issue.”