LGIU’s Commissioning Editor for Ireland reflects on the recently published research on finance and funding in England and Irish local government’s ability to fund placemaking and he wonders if the grass is not so green.
Ok I will admit it. I have spent the better part of my career of 43 years giving out about the poor financial arrangements which local government in Ireland has to confront. I am pretty sure that many reading this now will also share my perspectives. But now it seems, in so much that has occurred in the past number of years, I am having to re-consider that view, at least when I look to spending by English Local Authorities. Yes, it is true, sometimes faraway hills are not so much greener than parched brown by on-going cost shifting of central government in other countries. That this is the case is now evident with the publication by the LGIU Local Democracy Research Centre of the first of a series of reports on local government finance across the globe.
The first part of this series, addressing finance in England, Germany, Japan and Italy is now available and more elements will be published over the coming months. You can read an overview and get a taste of things to come here. Research in Ireland and Scotland can be expected later this year, and no doubt, we can look forward to the series developing over the coming years with perhaps local government finance in Australia, the Americas and other places feeding into our understanding of the comparisons and differences between local government systems across the globe. My comparative local government students at the IPA will be kept busy!
So, what was that I mentioned about faraway hills been parched brown?
One of the things I had not fully understood is why English local government was closing down so many services. Their day-to-day spending is not that different to Ireland while their capital is lower, but this reflects a higher historic investment in infrastructure, something the Irish are only now addressing.
However, libraries, parks etc., all seem to be in the firing line with successive cuts to these really important underpinnings of place-making, something which the English local government system has historically been a world leader and to which we in Ireland have over many decades have looked at as a model of great local government service provision. Even in the worst of recession, a decade ago, Irish local government still managed to not just sustain such community important services but made substantial improvements which continues to this day.
The realities in England at the moment, borne out by the research, demonstrates just what a horrible environment for local government in England now pertains. Essentially, from my reading of the research, person centred services such as education and care are drawing down any available resources traditionally available to our English counterparts. By and large, the level of revenue spending in England when adjusted to population levels we have in Ireland are the same… ish. However, given the absorption of these funds, often driven by cost shifting practices in Whitehall, other person-centred spending is dropping like a stone in a pond. This means that very harsh decisions are being made in regard to the many services like libraries, roads and home maintenance, culture, and the arts, etc., that are almost taken for granted in Ireland. Capital spending is also under huge pressure in England relative to Ireland with the Irish local authorities having access to levels of funding that are considerably in excess of their English counterparts.
The big thing I expect to see coming out of the future proposed research on Ireland is not the lack of funds but the way they are allocated by central government to the local authorities. The development of over 500 funding programmes, many of which are restricted to annual submissions and competitions in Ireland, seems at this point to be a big difference between Ireland and elsewhere. It will be interesting to see if my suspicions bear fruit in that regard.
However, notwithstanding the pain of having so many funding platforms, at least the Irish local authorities do actually have the scope to be entrepreneurial, to be confident in their receipt of national and regional funding supports which is something, I suspect, would be looked at with envy by our counterparts in England.
It will be interesting to reflect on the research that will be available shortly from the LGIU concerning Germany, Italy, and Japan and whether similar issues to those in England apply. I suspect not.
Read the research on England when it comes out and marvel at how things have changed in Ireland and ponder on how such a great local government system that was in England is being humbled everyday by decisions in Whitehall.
So yes after 43 years of giving out I am going to have to turn into a less angry person as I look towards retirement. Probably a good thing for the people around me!!!