A Closer Look at How Dublin City Councillors Plan to Turn Promises into Progress

The recently released “Dublin Agreement” sets out a lengthy list of aspirations for the city, but how will it be implemented? And how will it be paid for?

The agreement was drafted by the four parties in Dublin City Council’s new “voting pact” or new “ruling group”: Fianna Fáil (which has the most seats), the Green Party, the Labour Party, and the Social Democrats.

Between them, they hold 34 of the 63 seats in the chamber.

The document lists broad-brush commitments, alongside 120 narrower actions, in seven areas: climate; housing; transport; arts, heritage, and sport; waste, litter, and pollution; accessibility and urban quality; and governance, finance and planning.

Close-readers will notice the different shades of language used in those action points – from promises that they “will put in place” or “will ban” this or that, to promises “to champion” or “to seek to” do something.

Since local councillors are often dependent on funding from the central government, or buy-in from city managers, what they are able to get done can depend on whether those players are on board, too.

A Taste of the Plans

Plans to tackle climate change include a big-picture commitment to a 40-percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and the achievement of a “carbon-free city” by 2050. The council will publish an annual audit of its carbon footprint, the agreement says.

How will the council accomplish these things? Concrete measures include putting in place a strategic policy committee for climate, working with the central government on district-heating systems, starting with the Poolbeg Peninsula, and retrofitting council buildings to make them more energy-efficient.

Under the housing heading, the agreement recognises that everyone in Dublin is “entitled to a suitable, affordable and sustainable home”. It commits to not selling off public land to developers – but with a caveat: unless the financial benefit to the council outweighs the social and economic benefit of having social housing and other public uses on the site.

Some of the action points essentially promise to implement existing rules: applying the vacant site levy to empty sites, or using compulsory purchase orders.

The agreement says councillors will also seek to take waste-collection services back under the control of the council, a proposal that has been motioned by councillors numerous times this month.

In terms of transport, the plans seek to introduce a street warden to more strictly enforce rules on cycle lanes and parking on footpaths.

The agreement also says councillors want to work towards “free public transport for all” and establish a democratically-elected Dublin Transport Authority.

In terms of arts, heritage and sports, the agreement says the council will seek to appoint a “night mayor” who will “enhance” the city’s nighttime culture.

It also says councillors will “work to deliver 5% of cultural, creative community space within the city”, and to establish further options for studios in the city, including 40 artists’ studios in the planned Poolbeg West development.

Lack of Progress?

Some councillors, like Patrick Costello from the Green Party, say that they’re frustrated with what they saw as a lack of achievements by the last council.

“We found that the conversations we were having with parties weren’t very policy-driven,” says Costello.

The dominant voting block during the last council’s five-year term involved Sinn Féin (which had the largest number of seats at 16), Labour, the Green Party and some independents.

The results of the local elections last month shifted the constellation of councillors sitting in the chamber in City Hall, and with it, the ruling coalition. And it’s this new group that’s brought in the Dublin Agreement.

“If you look back at previous agreements in the council going back 25 years, they were a lot more detailed and a lot more specific and that was what we wanted to achieve,” Costello says.

Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, whose party held 16 seats in the last term, says he could stand over the party’s stance on reserving public land for public housing, which he called for last September.

“Fianna Fail, the Greens and the Social Democrats have now bought into that which is great to see,” he says.

He said his party had also pushed for a cost-rental model of housing and he says this was “absorbed” by the new agreement.

Doolan says there were “huge constraints” in the last council caused by “ministerial intervention” in relation to housing.

Fianna Fáil Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick says that stalled housing projects like O’Devaney Gardens and the regeneration of Dominic Street flats, as well as projects like the Sean McDermott Street Magdalene Laundry site and the proposed library on Parnell Square were one of the reasons behind the agreement.

“These are all city council projects that really we need to get a bit of energy behind and champion from a political perspective. [We need to] identify what the barriers are and remove them,” she says.

She blames the central government’s “ideological opposition” to investing in social housing and says she hopes the agreement, with its cross-party, political support, can hold Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, to account.

Labour Party Councillor Mary Freehill blames the erosion of the council’s powers by the central government in relation to housing, too.

Drafting the Agreement

All four parties helped draft the final document, Fitzpatrick says. “We spoke as well to Fine Gael and Sinn Féin and the independents.”

Costello of the Green Party says each party that has signed up to the agreement got a say into putting it together.

An initial sticking point was the Local Property Tax, Fitzpatrick says. Each year, the council has to decide whether to increase it from a base rate by up to 15 percent, or decrease it by up to 15 percent.

Last council term, despite pleas from council managers that they could use some additional funding for city services, and efforts by Green and Labour councillors to push for no or smaller reductions, the council consistently voted to reduce the rate by the maximum of 15 percent.

The new leadership group ultimately decided to allow a free vote on the Local Property Tax for this council term, Fitzpatrick says.

“There’s kind of a little bit of every party in there,” says Costello. “There was general broad agreement on some of the tenets of the agreement. Like the re-municipalisation of waste. Hardly anyone objected to that.”

Dermot Lacey says the Labour Party was “very happy with the agreement”.

“Both Labour and the Greens proposed a Climate Change Committee,” he says, though he’s reluctant to “split hairs”.

“Both Labour and the Greens were adamant that council-owned property should be protected,” he says.

Votes around this issue in the last term were contentious. In one of the last council’s last roll-call votes, councillors split over whether to sell off a parcel of council-owned land on Harcourt Road to Charledev Properties DAC for €1.4 million. In the end, 23 councillors voted against the proposal, 14 for it, and two abstained.

Although initially incensed during a row over how appointments to committees and working groups were proposed by the ruling party at this month’s council meeting, independent Councillor Cieran Perry, leader of the independents’ group, says he would support the agreement.

“It generally looked quite progressive,” Perry says. “I, on a personal level, would support it – would endeavour to get the group as a whole to support it.”

Monitoring Progress

Part of the Dublin Agreement is the establishment of an implementation group that will monitor its progress.

It’s made up of the four parties that signed up the agreement, Fitzpatrick says. But she says that, personally, she would welcome other parties joining it.

“The implementation group is going to be the most important part of [the agreement],” says Freehill. They’ll meet regularly to monitor progress, she says.

Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon said that’ll be once a month.

Fitzpatrick says: “My proposal is that the implementation group meet with management, identify which actions can be achieved through the existing resources, legislation and bylaws and which actions fall into a longer-term category.”

As of yet, Fitzpatrick says, the parties that signed up to the Dublin Agreement have not formally met with council managers about their plans.

Because of how powers are split between council officials and local councillors, and again with central government, buy-in from officials at Dublin City Council or the Department of Housing, or national transport bodies, for example, is often key to proposals getting anywhere.

For example, some councillors last term often complained that council officials weren’t using compulsory purchase orders enough to buy up derelict property in the city.

The retrofitting programme for social housing is dependent to a degree on central government funding, as are affordable housing schemes, and so on.

Financing the Agreement

Many of the action points in the agreement refer to seeking funding, or setting up funds for different projects.

Under the climate heading, the Dublin Agreement says councillors “will obtain” funding for a five-year flat-refurbishment programme, and “will establish a local climate action … resourced from additional central government funding”. They also “will establish” a playground building fund, it says.

Other measures might not mention money, but will still cost.

Sinn Féin’s Doolan says his party would agree with many of the commitments in the agreement, but how they’re going to be funded is “a concern”.

“There’s a lot of commitment about staff, funding, but there isn’t one penny allocated to it,” he says.

Gannon, of the Social Democrats, says: “I don’t think it’s possible to see how much everything will cost.”

“[We] can’t do this until we [hear] back from the manager. For example, we raised questions on numerous occasions [about] how much it would cost to retake waste management into the control of the city council.”

Fitzpatrick of Fianna Fáil says she plans to meet with the council’s head of finance, Kathy Quinn, before the SPCs are decided, to get an idea of costing.

“Some of these actions will be deliverable within what is an existing budget,” she said.

Fitzpatrick gave the commitment to a city retrofit programme as an example of a “big-ticket item” that will take longer to implement.

“That’s going a big, capital programme. We’re talking hundreds of millions,” she said.

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Author:

Aura McMenamin: is a city reporter covering the south side of the city, and jobs. You can reach her at aura@dublininquirer.com.

Reader responses

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Peter FitzGerald
at 27 June at 11:16

Some great-sounding ideas, hope they can be implemented. Here's to more of the living, lived-in city that's a pleasure to be in, and less of the carmageddon.

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