Local Government Structures and Functions
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government oversees the operation of the local government system, providing the policy framework within which local authorities work and deliver services to the communities that they represent and serve. The Department also supports local government in its role of promoting the well-being and quality of life of citizens and communities through the efficient performance of functions and delivery of good-value services at local level.
Article 28A of the Irish Constitution recognises the role of local government in providing a forum for the democratic representation of communities and in exercising and performing powers conferred by law. It also provides a guarantee that local elections will be held every five years.
The Local Government Act 2001 (extensively amended and updated by the Local Government Reform Act 2014) is the core legislative code supporting the structures, powers, functions and duties of local government in Ireland.
In addition to the 2001 Act, the operation of local authorities is affected by a range of other legislation very often dealing with specific services (e.g. housing, roads, planning, waste, etc.) which should be consulted, where relevant.
Each county, city and city and county is divided into local electoral areas and members of local authorities are elected in these. Local electoral areas and the number of members to be elected in each are specified in a statutory instrument for each local authority area. These were most recently made in 2014 for all except Cork City, which was made in 2008.
The breakdown between local authorities at county, city and city and county is as follows:
There are 31 local authorities
• 26 county councils, of which three are in Dublin (Fingal, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and South Dublin
• 3 city councils: Cork, Dublin and Galway
• 2 city and county councils: Limerick and Waterford.
Local authorities are multi-purpose bodies responsible for delivering a broad range of services in relation to roads; traffic; planning; housing; economic and community development; environment, recreation and amenity services; fire services and maintaining the register of electors.
Responsibilities in councils are divided into two areas:
- reserved functions (for the elected council)
- executive functions (for the chief executive)
Policy decisions are made by majority resolutions passed by the elected councillors during council meetings. These are reserved for the elected council and are ‘reserved functions’. Some of the reserved functions include, passing an annual budget, housing policy decisions and policies on environmental protection.
These decisions may be made at 2 levels:
- Full council (plenary level)
- Municipal/metropolitan/borough district level
The municipal district members act as a decision-making sub-formation of the overall council in respect of their municipal district area.
It is the duty of the chief executive along with the directors of services and other members of the local authority management team to advise and assist the elected council while carrying out ‘executive functions’. The chief executive, assisted by a senior management team, manages a local authority on a day-to-day basis. Some of the chief executive’s responsibilities include delivering on strategic objectives as set out in the corporate plan, administering schemes and allocating grants. Policy areas under the responsibility of the chief executive include transport, social housing, economic development and local authority governance.
There are 949 councillors in the country, with council membership in local authorities ranging from 18 to 63.
Members are elected to a local electoral area in respect of a local authority. If that local electoral area is situated in a municipal district, those members comprise the council membership for that municipal district in addition to forming part of the plenary (full) council for the entire local authority.
A municipal district is an area of a council area that comprises one or more electoral area. In most cases the electoral area constitutes the municipal district. Municipal district members take certain decisions in relation to the districts, performing some of the elected councillors' reserved functions.
All counties and cities apart from the local authorities in the areas of Dun Laoghaire, Fingal and South Dublin and the cities of Dublin, Cork and Galway are divided into municipal districts. Councillors represent both the municipal district and the local authority. In total, there are 95 municipal districts in the country.
The municipal districts which contain the areas previously covered by Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny city councils are known as metropolitan districts. The municipal districts which contain the areas previously covered by Clonmel, Drogheda, Sligo and Wexford borough councils are known as borough districts. Municipal districts have the same legal status whether they are called municipal districts, metropolitan districts or borough districts.
Ireland’s Regional Authorities have a range of powers in relation to spatial planning and economic development. They were streamlined into three Regional Assemblies in 2015, representing the Northern and Western (link is external), Eastern and Midlands (link is external), and the Southern (link is external) Regions. The membership of a regional assembly consists of members of the local authorities within the region. The aim of these assemblies is to co-ordinate, promote or support strategic planning and sustainable development and promote effectiveness in local government and public services.