Local Elections 2014 — What Powers do Local Councillors Have?

It’s local election time, that traditional season where prospective councillors tell you complete lies, and I thought maybe it would be a good time for a little refresher on precisely what powers they have and what powers they do not have.  The second list is considerably longer than the first.

Councillors individually have no powers at all.  They have no authority, no budget and nobody reports to them.  A councillor cannot get you a house.  A councillor cannot get your road resurfaced.  A councillor cannot get you permission to build your dream home.

As a group, they also have no decision-making powers, in the executive sense.  Their only role is in setting policy, to a very limited extent, covering only the roles set out in law.  These are sanitation, housing, roads, planning and environment, with a mixed bag of miscellaneous items thrown in, mostly to do with cheese and wine.  The role of councillors is strictly confined to broad policy, not specifics.

Even in the roads category, councillors have no responsibility for roads managed by the NRA, although they are fairly fond of sending deputations to Dublin for the benefit of the local papers.  Half an hour with the NRA, a day mooching around Dublin, a few pints and a nice T&S claim for everyone in the audience.  How bad?

Councils have no role whatsoever in national legislation, health, policing, agriculture or foreign affairs.  They only have a role in education to the extent that seats are reserved on VEC boards for local representatives, but again, these powers are strictly limited to policy.  A councillor can’t get your little genius into your school of choice.

If a candidate’s election literature says they’re against property tax, tear it up and throw it out.  Councils have no function in regard to taxation and no influence.   Likewise, if a candidate is against water charges, congratulate them and then ask them what that has to do with being a councillor, since it’s outside the scope of their brief.  They’re scamming you.

A law-and-order councillor is a useless councillor since they have no role in that area.  A pro-farmer councillor is a waste of space, since agriculture is not one of the prescribed areas for which local authorities have responsibility.  A councillor who has a position on Irish policy abroad is a bullshitter who needs to be shown the door.  A councillor who claims to be pro-sport is a chancer.  A councillor who promises to work for better healthcare is a liar.  A councillor who wants to shorten the dole queues needs to be sacked.  A councillor who tells you he’s working for education or the local economy is just looking for a free junket to China.

Councillors have no role in any of these things, or for that matter in food safety, immigration, mortgage resolution, curbing prostitution, teenage drunkenness or tv licences.  This is a classic example, from a character running for Galway County Council.

Let me repeat: they’re responsible for policy-making on a very narrow range of issues and individually they have no power at all.

Many people believe the Mayor is the boss of the council.

This is false.

Mayors are just elected councillors like all the rest, with a few minor procedural responsibilities but no executive power whatever. They have no budget, no authority and no staff.  Nobody reports to them.  A Mayor is just a person who chairs council meetings, signs the minutes and nothing more, apart from the dubious authority to extend the tenure of a city or county manager, which can lead to a certain conflict of interest.

If you want a favour done, you’d be far better advised to make friends with the janitor who’s probably on good terms with those staff-members who actually have some authority to make decisions.

Here’s a checklist.  Print it out and keep it by the front door for when they arrive looking for your vote.

Powers of local councillors
Individual powers NONE
Collective powers Planning policy YES
Planning decisions NO
Sanitation policy YES
Sanitation decisions NO
Roads policy YES
Selecting roadworks NO
Motorways NO
Employment NO
Policing NO
Housing policy YES
Allocation of housing NO
Selecting houses for repair NO
Selecting houses for improvement NO
Water supply NO
Water charges NO
Property tax NO
Education NO
Health NO
Agriculture NO
Foreign affairs NO
Social welfare NO
Sport NO
Youth work NO










21 thoughts on “Local Elections 2014 — What Powers do Local Councillors Have?

  1. That’s the kind of story the councillors will not want to have people reading, after all, they are the ones with direct access to the janitor.
    And as you point out, you can’t do better than that!

  2. I do believe that some of them have ‘the ear’ of people who can make decisions though.
    Anyone in city hall will tell you, that certain councillors have more sway than others down there.

  3. I’m running for council – this is a great post – and maybe it’ll keep people focusses on policy. Part of my campaign to be a councillor is actually getting people in touch with the “janitors” in city hall, and empowering people to help themselves. I’m up against it though with a local candidate sending around pictures of potholes he had filled in our estate yesterday (no really – not a parody!)

  4. Ideally, in a democracy, people wouldn’t be looking for special treatment via a janitor or a councillor.

  5. It would be no harm to encourage people to apply for the jobs all the same.. 946 of them going around the country and only 1500 applications.. At the very least, if we got some ordinary people in there we might have some chance of changing things. I plan to run myself though I’ve never been involved in politics of any sort, but I feel the image of ”officialdom” that comes with being part of local government, will lend great credibility to the voluntary, community movements that I’m involved in.. Maybe, despite councillors having very limited ”powers”, as independent councillors people could work together outside of their official roles while still maintaining the ”official” stature in the eyes of the general public.

    Think for example Éirebank.. A councillor(s) could form the link (voluntarily and outside of working hours) which would allow the people themselves to organise and to create and issue their own interest-free currency across the island, effectively putting an end to the forced austerity.. It’s like we’re starving because we don’t have enough forks, simple solution.

  6. Remember Norman Mailer, writer and pugilistic New York intellectual? He once ran for Mayor of New York. Asked by a journo what he would do if one morning he woke up to find the city covered in six feet of snow, he answered: I’d piss on it.

    I might vote for a council candidate who promises to piss in the potholes that scar the boreens.

  7. The image of officialdom. What on earth does that mean?

    Isn’t that precisely the sort of bullshit we need to stamp out?

    It strikes me that you’re no more than a new variant of the old problem.

  8. The image of ”officialdom” means; not the image of ”anti-this” or ”anti-that” or ”Conspiracy theorist” or ”protestor”…

    Do you understand..?

    Thank you for the insult.

  9. I think I understand very well. You want to use the status of councillor to pursue activities that have nothing to do with your brief. How does that make you different from the current bunch of chancers?

  10. No, you don’t understand and it appears that you don’t wish to understand. All the best with the blog.

  11. I was promised by a local Fianna Fáil Councillor that he’d get my son into Creacent Comp, and never heard from him again. When I chased him up he told me to make a ‘charitable donation’ and I’d be fine.

  12. A Fianna Fáil councillor in Limerick. The school I mentioned is Crescent College Comprehensive.

  13. Excellent and well informed analysis as usual Bock.

    It is depressing that most of the candidates and what is not a sophisticated electorate have so little respect for local government that personal and national issues shape the outcome of local elections so who in their right minds would devolve more power to these clowns?

    The first council meeting out at U.L. will be a poor beginning, given the quality of the participants. Apparently the AAA are planning a protest. They haven’t copped on yet that they can’t abolish the new charges.

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