Household Charge and the problem of unreformed and unaccountable local government

Talk to any politicos in London, or indeed anyone politically aware enough to notice in other parts of England and you’ll hear them heap praise on Ireland’s determination to get itself out of the deep bog the bank guarantee dropped it into.

But the funding mess is being further complicated by the government’s determination to fast track what’s called a household charge. To those of us living in the UK, that’s an equivalent of the regional or district rates.

This was abolished by Jack Lynch’s government in the late seventies (on foot of a manifesto promise in the 1977 general election) and in the process broke any local accountability between councils, councillors and their constituencies.

The charge is just €200 (£167) erm, that would be €100 (circa £83)… But so far only 85 83% of the people have paid it.

A sullen revolt of the greybeards… says Gerry McKeever in a piece in yesterday’s New York Times

Fianna Fail laid down an amendment to the legislation calling for a six month delay in implementation and bringing in an option to pay in four monthly payments… It was rejected…

Yet, the difficulty in knowing even how to pay it is undoubtedly a part of the problem too (inflating the apparent size of the ‘revolt’… Yesterday, Eamon Gilmore was caught out in the Dail yesterday, when he suggested people could pay it at the local post office… Well, they can get the forms, but they can’t actually pay it there.

Everything about this suggests the government has allowed itself to be prodded into premature action, not just because it requires a whole new mechanism for collection (since central government has been paying for councils for a generation or more).

It also implies that much deeper long term reforms are required to reassure people that this is not just about paying off external central government debt. They need to see the connection between what they pay in and what comes out the other end.

Suzy Byrne has probably got one of the best unspun accounts of the problem:

The ‘trick’ of removing funding for local government from the book of estimates and saying that the household charge is going to fund all these ‘important’ things won’t fool many. Neither will it wash when the government start saying that people have not paid their household charge so services have to be cut further. And it does not reform local government or the mess that is local authority housing and regeneration, stop the closure of libraries, the absence of regulation of bin charges and private operators, the lack of local play and recreation facilities in many areas. It won’t stop TD’s interfering in local politics either or concentrate their minds on national issues.

And she concludes:

I am in favour of a progressive property tax but what are the chances when it is finally introduced that the money will remain ring fenced to fund local amenities and administration? The household charge is another example of this government introducing charges or cutting payments without reforming anything and in this case the continued neutering of local democracy.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty