Balance of power

Ireland, to paraphrase LP Hartley, is a foreign country – they do things differently there. On the face of it, local government appears similar to the pre-1974 position. There are county and urban district councils and county borough corporations – but things are still not quite as they seem.

The functions are not quite on a par with England and Wales. For example, Irish authorities have no responsibility for the administration of education, but through vocational educational committees, are responsible for vocational and continuation schooling. They are also responsible for matters including the construction and maintenance of public water supply and sewerage schemes and for motor taxation. Also there are no local authority social services.

The main difference is the management system, with local authority functions split into the 'reserve' and 'executive'. Reserve functions are carried out by elected members and include financial and political matters, and legislative issues, such as byelaws and the control of the executive branch. Any function which is not reserved is performed by a city or county manager.

Because managers play a substantial role in the decision-making process, it follows that there is a less prominent executive role for committees than in England. Many are purely advisory. The manager must advise and assist authorities in their exercise of reserved powers and attend council or committee meetings on request. They have the right to attend council meetings and take part in discussions, but not vote.

City and county managers are officers of their authorities. Appointments are made by the local appointments commission – a statutory three-person body whose recommendations an authority is bound to follow. A manager can be suspended by a two thirds majority of the authority, and removed from office with ministerial consent.

The manager is effectively the chief executive of all the authorities within their area. This is novel for UK officers who are used to the individual autonomy of distinct local authorities. However, the town clerk of a UDC made it clear that the county manager was responsible for the council's housing allocations.

Another interesting development in Eire is the power of general competence conferred by that country's Local Government Act 1991. Many may think that such a measure would be desirable in the UK. The bill preceding the Irish statute indicated: “This provision will greatly relax the now outdated ultra vires principle under which local authorities had to adduce specific statutory authority for each individual action and will allow for a much freer and more flexible statutory framework.”

Without limiting the general powers of a local authority, the Act makes clear that authorities may inter alia 'provide any service or other thing, or engage in any activity that, in the opinion of the authority, is likely to benefit the local community'.

There are some constraints preventing duplication of function and 'wasteful and unnecessary expenditure' – this includes power to prescribe cash limits for expenditure. Also, Section 6 decisions (other than the provision of the services of the authority's staff) are reserved functions, to be exercised by elected members. However, many UK authorities, currently labouring under the shackles of ultra vires would appreciate such a power.

Although authorities have general competence, they do not have the cash they would like to make full use of it. Although the abolition of rates on Eire domestic property in 1978 may have been good news for homeowners, authorities have had to look to central government for the revenue lost.

Population is another factor which increases financial burdens on Irish authorities. Compared with those in Eire, UK councils generally have a substantial population base to cover their expenditure (albeit that more people require services). For example, the population of the Lancashire County Council area is some 1,395,300 and that of the Birmingham Metropolitan District approximately 992,800. However, the entire population of the Irish Republic is only 3,525,719 and that of its authorities is small by UK standards. The population of the Offally County Council area is less than 59,000. The per capita cost of services must therefore be higher.

As yet there is no compulsory competitive tendering in Eire. However, many authorities have no in-house legal provision but use a local firm of solicitors. Larger authorities such as Dublin have a substantial in-house legal department. There is also voluntary contracting out of services like refuse collection. However, these are local decisions.

So, if you ever go across the sea to Ireland you are likely to come across some useful ideas for local government. The end to ultra vires and a law of general competence across the local government board would be well received here by the majority of local authorities.

Nicholas Dobson is chief solicitor at Doncaster MBC.