Monday, July 04, 2016

Viewpoint: bring back Council responsibility

A contribution to the Diary recently asked that we save our litter and bring it to one of the many bins around town, instead of dumping it in hidden corners, writes Brian Byrne. With which I agree wholeheartedly. Except that — apart from a couple of private ones outside some shops and the bottles and cans recycling facility at the Cattle Mart — there are no public bins around town which can be so used.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? In this county, even this country, we don’t do the public bins thing well. If we do it at all.

I recall from my days covering Kildare County Council meetings that the matter often was raised. The answer usually being of the kind that if the Council provided bins, people would use them. Then they’d have to be emptied when full. And the Council didn’t have the resources to do that thing. So it's better not to provide the bins. Words to that effect ...

I travel a lot. And when I do, I always find it intriguing that local authorities elsewhere don't seem to subscribe to the same idea. In most places they take responsibility for keeping the communities which they serve clean and tidy. Though it's really something of a joint civic effort: 'we will provide bins, you use them, and we will keep them emptied'.

I found it so on a recent trip to Northern Ireland, for instance. And though Geneva in Switzerland is not a particularly beautiful city, the local authority does clean the streets, and the local populace, mostly, does its bit to keep litter down. As happens in most European cities and to an even better extent in the smaller towns. I regularly drive through large German cities and small German villages, and they are spotless. Some weeks ago in Spain, again I was struck by the presence each morning in the small town of street cleaners, and the provision of bins — including public on-street recycling facilities — all over the place. I never saw one overflowing.

For decades now, Ireland's county councils and other local authorities have been divesting themselves of responsibilities. In the name, usually, of efficiency. Of showing a bottom line produced by income rather than expenditure on services. That was partly a response to losing local control of their finances in the 1970s when domestic rates were abolished in a political coup. But as the authorities became more technocratic, 'efficiency' as a mantra gradually replaced the traditional one of 'service'.

The road gangs were disbanded, and now we have more water floods on our roads because the drains are no longer maintained. The refuse service was given out to private contractors, so now the councils don't have to dirty their hands and the consumer gets to pay much more. The shifting of responsibility for local authority housing to the private developers resulted in nothing of the kind being built as the same developers bought their way out of that requirement. Water services at local level are gone from the councils too, and we know the social unrest which that has brought on.

And, apart from a once-a-month visit by a mechanical sweeper, there's not much being done any more at Council level to keep Kilcullen clean.

That's not to knock the efforts of individual departments and people within Kildare County Council to provide whatever services they can to the much-grown population of the county. People like Dara Wyer in the Environment Section are always approachable and pro-active in providing what help, facilities and grant aid they can to whichever public they are designated to serve. The Library Service is another fine one with which the people of Kilcullen can directly interact. And others, dealing with a wide range of the things that are required for communities of disparate demographics and needs.

But this piece is about keeping the communities, especially our community, clean and tidy. And while the local Tidy Towns activists and volunteers are working as hard as ever, it's not right that they should be increasingly required to shoulder more of that responsibility. After all, they have their own lives and jobs and families to look after too. And while the local authorities — their work and their employees — are financed from central funds for a long time now, those same central funds come from the variety of taxes levied on all of us. A cynic might suggest that we used to pay directly for the Council and its services, now we pay indirectly for the Council only.

Look, this is all thought. Viewpoint. Right, maybe. Wrong, maybe. Somewhere in between, maybe. It's just that I think we should be thinking. Maybe thinking that we should in some respects seek to go back to the old ways. At least then, when we had a problem with our Council services, there was a Council with responsibility to which we could complain. When we allowed them shift their responsibilities to the private sector, we left ourselves at the mercy of commercial interests.

And we lost our public litter bins.

We individually have responsibility too. But when on the mornings we see bags, boxes, cans and other litter on the footpaths, can we really blame those who left them there? The Council who serves us and therefore whom we should be directing, because we pay them, aren't providing an alternative the litterers could learn to use to change their ways.

Back to basics, anyone? Maybe starting with some public litter bins …