Amid the challenges of trying to implement the Dublin Waste Management Plan and the Poolbeg incinerator, dealing with the recent snow and ice, and the consequential problems with water shortages, Dublin City Manager John Tierney spoke to Owen McQuade about the financial pressures facing councils, local government reform, and the outlook for 2010
Like the rest of the public sector, John Tierney and Dublin City Council have been facing up to the economic realities of the downturn in the past 12 months.
The council’s full-time workforce is down by 500, from 6,900 to 6,400 through natural retirements, early retirement and career breaks, and they have had an income reduction of €75 million to deal with in the space of 12 months.
Tierney explains that the council have been undertaking “workforce planning exercises” in order to “organise our resources as best as possible to deal with the challenges we have at the moment.”
As the scale of the national funding situation became apparent in late 2008 and early 2009 the council reduced its budget by €30 million on a contingency basis.
“This helped us in trying to meet the overall €75 million change between 2009 and 2010, leaving a net €45 million to be taken out in the 2010 Budget. That’s the scale of the challenge that has faced us,” Tierney says. He adds: “Our total budget for 2010 is now €867 million.”
An “advocate of local government”, he noted that An Bord Snip recommended a reduction in the number of local authorities and substantial cuts in expenditure. Tierney argues: “There was a very basic examination of local government by An Bord Snip. The actual justification of the recommendations to cut the number of local authorities and cut expenditure is not to be found in the detailed papers published with the report.”He is awaiting the examination by the Local Government Efficiency Review Group, which is being established by Environment Minister John Gormley to review the finances of local authorities. This group will be headed by Pat McLaughlin, who was also a member of An Bord Snip.
The City Manager says he and other local authorities will contribute to the work of the Efficiency Review Group and will “demonstrate where numbers have been reduced and where expenditure has been taken out of the system.” From June 2008 to September 2009 the local government sector’s whole-time-equivalent staff reduced from 37,243 to 33,147; a 10.9 per cent net reduction.
Stating the case for local government, Tierney says: “If you look at some of the other European countries there is a higher proportion of money spent locally and more services delivered locally. In recent weeks the necessity for local services to be properly resourced has been highlighted.”
He adds: “I have always felt that we should have organised our services on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity i.e. where decisions are taken as close as possible to the citizen.”
Tierney believes that “too many functions are centralised.” In his ideal world functions would be looked at “on the basis of how best to build new communities and develop more active citizenship.”
When drawn on the issue of decentralisation, Tierney says the “de-centralisation” process in this country was in fact “de-concentration” or “the movement of different parts of the centre to different parts of the country. Instead decentralisation should involve devolution of power.”
The structure of the Irish system contributes to the “clientism” of Irish politics. “People are going to Ministers and to national politicians to deal with what should be local issues.”
According to Tierney, if there was more concentration on “legislation at national level” it would allow local issues to be dealt with by local authorities. “This would enable local government to be an equal and valid partner with central government in delivering public service.”
Tierney recognises that in the aftermath of the exceptional cold spell there are significant problems with water supplies across the country. In this regard he says the “current situation”- where the council has urged homes and businesses to conserve water because strategic reserves are “critically low” and demand has reached an all-time high – “has highlighted the ongoing importance of the need to conserve water and that wastage of water can lead to major problems.” He criticised the insurance company who told homeowners to keep their taps running during the cold spell to avoid freezing pipes saying: “that’s absolutely unacceptable and a terrible waste of a precious resource.”
In the December Budget, the Government announced that domestic water charges will be re-introduced within a timeframe of two years and that water meters will be installed, reversing a decision taken back in 1997. Tierney believes “one of the ways to help conserve water is to have a charging mechanism.”
He adds that commercial businesses are currently subject to a water charge. “Our charge is half the European norm so it is very good value for money and that should be acknowledged.”
In addition, Tierney has been involved in a debate over the controversial Poolbeg incinerator, on which construction has begun. He insists: “We are building a waste to energy facility as a direct result of government policy over a period of 12 years.”
He stands by his statement, made to the Irish Times, that the council had a “statutory obligation” to go ahead with the incinerator due to their waste management policy and the fact that it is an objective of the regional Waste Management Plan. He confirmed that the four Dublin local authorities have an approximate liability for €120 million due to site acquisition, relocation costs, advance works on district heating, and the cost of statutory processes. He also said further liabilities could arise if the contract was terminated or if policies were enacted to make it void.
After the incinerator was granted permission, Minister Gormley, who is a TD for the Dublin South East constituency (where the incinerator is situated), initiated an international review of waste management policy, which suggests measures to limit the amount of waste available for incineration.
Tierney says there are serious flaws in the international review and he revealed that a report will be published by the ESRI at the end of January which he considers “will confirm the necessity for the approach taken in government policy since 1997 and pursued by the Dublin local authorities and that this approach should continue.”
He added: “If you look at places like Stockholm, which is the green capital of Europe, it has waste to energy as an important part of their policy.”
Tierney says that “it should never be forgotten that the central aim of our waste management policy is recycling. The recycling target is 59 per cent of all municipal waste for the region and we have now reached 40 per cent and there has been no let up in our commitment to recycling.”
He concludes that “the incinerator is a long-term investment and problems all over the country with water supply and drainage capacity demonstrate the necessity of building facilities with the capacity for the long-term. We have to meet European waste directive targets on the reduction of landfill waste or this country will face large penalties and building the incinerator is the best way to prevent this.”
Tierney notes that, “there has been a change in housing policy.” The Government have made moves to prioritise social leasing given the upfront capital costs of providing new housing and the number of empty properties still vacant since the property boom. Minister for Housing and Local Services, Michael Finneran recently explained that the reasoning behind this move was that “the traditional approach to social housing delivery, based on 100 per cent capital funding by the state, is no longer sustainable.” The new social housing will be based on long term leasing of properties.
In 2009, Dublin City Council completed 790 social homes and 320 affordable homes but in 2010 Tierney expects they will complete approximately 390 social housing units with a target of an additional 250 units to be provided under the Government’s long-term leasing scheme.
Despite the “very early challenge in the new year with the demands that are being placed on services,” Tierney is confident that local government will continue to cope. He is also impressed by some of the work undertaken during the boom years.
“People look back on the Celtic Tiger as if nothing positive happened,” Tierney states. He then cites a number of high-profile infrastructural projects that have been completed in both the public and private sectors over the last number of years, as positive examples of progress.
The Luas line down to the Docklands, the Samuel Beckett Bridge, and the 52 acre Father Collins Public Park are “very fine examples of what public authorities can produce.”
Indeed, Father Collins Park fits in with the sustainable cities theme running through the Draft Dublin City Development Plan, which is currently up for public consultation. Situated on Hole-in-the-wall-road, with five wind turbines, saving an estimated 163 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, separate football pitches with changing areas, and a lake, the €20 million redevelopment project is wholly sustainable and is a “fundamental part of building new communities in the North Fringe of the city.”
Tierney points to other exciting developments coming on stream in 2010 with the private sector provision of the new Grand Canal Theatre which is due to open in March and the National Convention Centre due to open in September.
Dublin has been designated as European Capital of Sport this year, much to the “ardent” sports fan’s delight. In addition he looks forward to both the rugby Heineken Cup final and the soccer Europa Cup final coming to the new Aviva Stadium in 2011. The city may also be designated a UNESCO city of literature in 2010, due to its rich history of poets, playwrights and authors. Looking towards 2012, Tierney is happy that the Tall Ships that proved such a hit in Belfast last year will sail into Dublin and that the city will be the European City of Science.
Looking to the future, Tierney feels that the role of local government in developing communities, integrating new communities and delivering local infrastructure and services will continue to be hugely relevant. “We have been to the forefront in the integration of new communities into Irish society in recent years and our community, sports and arts development officers have been doing great work. I think this is just one example of where we can be very effective.”
The Draft City Development Plan, which deals with thorny issues like building height and density “is a crucial document in charting our way into the future and is very heavily framed on the whole issue of sustainable cities,” explains Tierney.
In addition Dublin has been identified as an international city region therefore the council has been “very conscious of how the city region is branded.” He refers to the work of the four Dublin local authorities in adopting an Economic Development Action Plan for the region. As part of this work they are looking at how the city region compares to other cities on “competitiveness, enterprise and quality of life indicators.” He thinks the establishment the Creative Dublin Alliance is a very good idea as the local authorities, third level institutions, business and other interests are now working more collaboratively for the benefit of the city region.
Profile: John Tierney
Born in Terryglass, County Tipperary, Tierney was educated at St. Flannan’s in Ennis before going to university for one year. He took up a summer job as a temporary clerical officer in North Tipperary County Council but was then offered a permanent job and decided this was to be his future although he returned to studies later in life.
He was appointed Dublin City Manager in 2006. He has extensive experience in the local authority sector, having previously worked with eight different local authorities, including previous positions as Galway City Manager and Fingal County Manager. He is Chairman of the steering group which monitors the strategic planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area and is also a Director of the Affordable Homes Partnership Board, Dublin Tourism and the Digital Hub Development Agency. He is a member of the Council of Dublin Chamber of Commerce, the Governance Board of the Long Room Hub in Trinity College Dublin and the recently established National Transport Agency. In addition he was appointed Chairman of the Institute of Public Administration in November.
He has a BA and a MA in Public Management and completed a Doctorate in Governance through the Institute of Public Administration and Queen’s University Belfast in 2009.
In his spare time Tierney enjoys following all sports, especially hurling and admits that after last year’s all-Ireland hurling final he is still a “recovering” Tipperary hurling fan.
He is married with two daughters and has one grandchild.
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