We need to ensure there is a return to local democracy

28 June 2017

Speaking on the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2016, Labour TD for Longford – Westmeath, Willie Penrose has said we need to re-establish town councils.

“I welcome this debate and I applaud Deputy Cassells for bringing forward the Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017. It is a start. It is not earth shattering but it is a very important start. The Bill proposes to establish a town council commission. It will not lead to a return of town councils any time soon. In fact, it is more likely to delay the restoration of town councils. We need to know what functions or powers they might have and the commission would be established to do that. We already know, however, what powers town councils and borough councils should have. The legislation that abolished them can be reversed. I know it would not be simple as there are about 80 or 90 different inputs into the Local Government Reform Act but the significant changes that were made in Act and the Putting People First policy have been nothing short of a disaster. I wish to be clear about this and we should face up to that reality. It is not just that a Bill or an Act is passed. I do not know who informed him but I am surprised the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, thought those reforms were successful.

“They are anything but successful. The former Minister, Phil Hogan’s reform of local government has not worked out. It is one of my and the Labour Party’s great regrets. We should have been more resilient, obstructive and obstinate in making sure that the reforms did not see the light of day. It has led to wholesale destruction. What passed for local government reform was not reform at all, it was abolition. Improvements had to be made because there were some town councils or town commissions that could be elected with 100 or 120 votes. We all know there were small town councils and they had to be reformed because they were unsustainable in the long term but this was not the case for towns such as Mullingar with 20,000 or 25,000 people, or for Athlone, Longford or larger towns of that nature. I was surprised at the Minister, Deputy Murphy, saying what he said. I am big and bold enough to admit that it was a disaster. If we cannot admit that in here then we are deceiving people.

“When then Minister, Phil Hogan, brought through his reforms I believe he had a vision of how municipal districts would work but the reality has not delivered. Many towns have been left with little or no representation and decisions that impact them are being made by councillors from the hinterland and surrounding countryside. I live ten or 12 miles outside Mullingar and I was never under the Mullingar municipal district, nor should I be. This is not a good way to plan, develop and run a town. The problems of a major town are very different from those of a rural village or a parish. There are multiple examples across Ireland where towns are split across districts or where multiple small towns are in one district. Many of our borough councils had a centuries-long history and tradition of municipal government. Since the abolition of the councils these towns have suffered as a result of key planning and resource decisions being made elsewhere.

“The Labour Party election manifesto in 2016 committed to restoring town councils. My colleague, Senator Denis Landy, who has a very keen interest in local government, has been a passionate advocate for the restoration of town councils. Our party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, has admitted upfront that it was a mistake to abolish them and he has seen at first hand the impact it has had on his own town in Wexford. I have seen the same in my own constituency. Athlone, Mullingar and Longford towns all need their own local democratic structures. Our recent party conference in Wexford passed a motion to re-establish borough and town councils. We are committed to doing so and have commenced drafting comprehensive legislation.

“The Minister of State, Deputy English, will be aware that with 90 sections or so, there will be a lot of reversing to be done. The tentacles of the expansive 2014 reforms have stretched out and have significant ramifications. We believe all urban settlements with a population of 5,000 or more should be considered eligible to have a town or borough council. I think that is the best cut-off point. We cannot reduce it to 800 or 1,000. The larger the town council, the more powers it should have. There should be a minimum of six councillors on each town council. That can be scaled up to a maximum of 15 or 20.

“Critically, I believe a boundary commission should be established to consider how to define the urban area for each town council. The Central Statistics Office and Ordnance Survey Ireland can provide key information in this respect. This should be one of the key functions when local election boundaries are considered. When town councils are being re-established, it will be essential to give them planning functions and a rateable base. Money is where the real power lies. A formula will need to be agreed to apportion property tax revenues within each county to ensure each area gets its appropriate share.

“A great deal of institutional knowledge was lost when town councils were abolished. Many small towns had developed special skills or offices. Each council from Carrick-on-Suir to Westport had its own way of doing things. Some councils specialised in tourism. Others ensured they had town gardeners and specialist planners. Many councils are now incapable of building social housing. Locally delivered services like fire and rescue operations, road maintenance, street lights, arts and culture amenities and parks are key parts of our towns. The restoration of town councils would ensure they are subject to local democratic accountability.

“The abolition of town councils saw a concomitant reduction in the power to strike a rate. Nobody has a better understanding of the infrastructure, housing and tourism needs of a town than the local council members. It is clear that the remuneration available to councillors has not kept pace with the responsibilities and demands that are thrust upon them. Some of them attend 75 to 80 meetings a year. In 1983, council members attended approximately 20 meetings a year.

“I believe Better Local Government was another disaster. In the early 1980s, the county manager, the county secretary and the county engineer attended every meeting. This meant there was a far greater degree of interaction and much speedier resolution of issues. The presence at the top table of the top three executives led to a greater level of accountability. I remember dealing with Jack Taaffe, Jim Hearn and Ciarán McGrath at the top table. We addressed them and fought for the issues of the day pertaining to the delivery of essential services for the people of our local areas. Now there is a multiplicity of layers of officialdom. As I look back, it seems to me that the old system worked best.

“I would like to refer to the findings of a survey conducted by Senator Landy. They give the lie to some of the stuff we heard from the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Of the 280 councillors who responded to the survey, 85% felt that the 2014 reforms had not strengthened local government. The same percentage of respondents felt that the abolition of town councils had weakened local democracy. This key finding highlights the need for further changes like those set out in the Bill proposed by Deputy Cassells. We are focused on this issue now. The major initiative before the House would accelerate the changes that are needed. I congratulate the Deputy on his Bill.

“The view of the councillors is that there is a need to embed real local democracy and decision-making power in locally-elected representatives. They believe the current arrangements have to be revisited because the loss of a lower tier of local government has not resulted in more representative and powerful municipalities. It is worrying that so few councillors think the role of local government has been strengthened. Many of them believe the removal of town councils has weakened our democracy. The figures set out in Senator Landy’s survey show that the ability to hold officials to account and represent local communities has not been improved following the 2014 changes.

“It is important to take account of the failure of Putting People First to deliver new devolved powers to democratically-elected councillors, especially in the context of the perceived strengthening of administrators and central government. Three out of four councillors feel the 2014 reforms have had a negative impact on local people and community groups. Over 90% of them believe further reforms are now needed. This is the point. People want more democracy through sub-county structures. Such structures are where it is at. Underpaid councillors have to attend multiple big meetings. People give out when it is proposed to increase their salaries. Councillors have to go from Billy to Jack, from one meeting to another. If this keeps going, we will get to the point where we will need to have full-time councillors. People who are in part-time or full-time jobs will not be able to take up the mantle of elected representatives.

“Reforms were needed, but we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We got rid of some of the best aspects of the system. We need to admit that we made a mess of it. If we were starting now, we would not start from here, but we have to start from this point. I do not think we should divide on this issue. I believe this House should be united in ensuring there is a return to local democracy. I suggest that a population base of 5,000 in a town would be a good starting point. It is not sacrosanct, but I think it is a reasonable starting point. Sometimes people say we are looking after ourselves, but that is not the case. We are trying to look after them in a reasonable and democratic way.”

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