By Dan Danaher
SIR Winston Churchill is credited with summing up the value of democracy. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried,” the former British Prime Minister stated.
Environment Minister Phil Hogan bit the bullet and introduced several controversial changes as set out in the Government’s Action Programme for Effective Local Government, following a succession of reports on local government reform.
However, when Clare people pick up the phone to ring their local councilllor for assistance to resolve a personal difficulty after the May 23 elections, they could find that Minister Hogan’s new local goverrment structures have put consistituents last for the most important aspect of every local councillor’s work – public representation.
The number of councillors in Clare will be slashed from 68 to 28 following the abolition of four town councils in Ennis, Shannon, Kilrush and Kilkee. This will result in a total loss of 36 town councillors and the reduction of the 32-member Clare County Council body to 28.
One of the most disgraceful aspects of the new local authority arrangements is that none of the considerable savings accruing from the ending of the town councils will be spent on filling the advocacy role completed by town councillors in an alternative body, such as the Citizens’ Information Service in Ennis.
Once again, the elderly, marginalised, people with disabilities and particularly those who are not computer-literate, will be worst hit by not having the option of going to their local town councillor to help them fill out a form for a social welfare or other entitlement.
Allocating a small portion of the savings from the abolition of 80 town councils to an agency like the Citizens’ Information would have acknowledged the Government is interested in facilitating advocacy for people.
Instead of increasing resources to Clare Citizens’ Information Service, which has offices in Ennis, Shannon and Kilrush, as well as outreach services in Ennistymon, Lisdoonvarna and Killaloe/Ballina, the Government has introduced cuts. There has been no increase in core staffing levels in recent years and no replacements for retired staff.
The current new structure is, I believe, undemocratic because the Government did not receive a mandate from voters to abolish town councils. The proposed abolition of the Seanad was thwarted following a referendum, yet the Government didn’t feel the futures of local authorities were worthy of a similar excercise in democracy.
It could be argued that the work of a town council is far more relevant to the daily lives of people in Ennis, Kilrush, Kilkee and Shannon than the Seanad, despite some of its valuable work in scrutinising Dáil legislation.
The main objective of Minister Hogan’s reforms is set out in the following description of the new structures in the ‘Putting People First’ blueprint.
“The ultimate purpose of local government is to promote the well-being and quality of life of citizens and communities, through effective, accountable and democratic representation and efficient performance of functions and delivery of services at the local level.
“The local authority role embraces a combination of service delivery, regulating relevant matters in the public interest, promoting sustainable physical and spatial development, and uniquely, providing democratic representation and accountability.
“The representational and leadership role is relevant not only to the local authority’s own direct functional responsibilities, but also to wider matters affecting the welfare of people and generally mobilising action for the betterment of the area and the community.
“Successful performance of this multi-faceted role requires a range of qualities, including responsiveness, leadership, innovation, commitment to efficiency and value for money, along with support for national objectives and compliance with international obligations,” it stated.
This all sounds great but, essentially, it is akin to a bottle of smoke, as the current changes are seriously flawed for a variety of reasons.
The department acknowledged in its new blueprint that the old town councils enjoyed advantages, such as proximity to the citizen, ability to respond to local needs and the fact that some have developed new roles in areas such as community and economic development, social inclusion, sport and recreation, arts and tourism. It stated town authorities were well positioned to build and maintain good connections with local communities, which is particularly relevant in the context of concerns regarding a lack of connection between citizens and local authorities, particularly in urban areas, with the continuing trend towards urbanisation in the context of increasing population and demographic diversity.
“There is a considerable element of history, heritage, tradition and civic status associated with town local government, many towns having charters dating back several centuries. There is a measure of attachment, particularly on part those involved in the local government system, to institutions of governance which predate the State by a considerable margin. This status contributes to the potential of towns as centres of civic life and community engagement, particularly in view of the degree of public identification with urban areas as focal points for social, commercial, recreational, educational, employment and other requirements of daily life and the increasing urban profile of the population,” the strategy continued.
One of the merits of the town council was the fact a resident of Kilkee, Kilrush, Ennis or Shannon could become mayor without necessarily being part of a political dynasty or playing a major role in the local party organisation.
However, crucially, the Local Government Efficiency Review Group report drew attention to duplication of administrative work arising from the existence of separate local authorities within the county, having parallel functions in areas such as planning, housing and roads.
Any change should bring about an improvement in local government but Minister Hogan and his department officials must have forgotten what is the primary role of any town or county councillor.
One of the glaring anomalies in the new structure is huge geographical areas which councillors in the West and Killaloe Municipal Districts will have to cover to conduct face-to-face meetings, particularly with constituents living in rural isolated areas.
While the Government is committed to reducing the number of Dáil seats, it has yet to confirm how many will be cut or when, if ever, this will happen.
The publication of preliminary population by area figures for the 2011 Census indicate a possible reduction of up to 20 seats. However, the constitutional stipulation that the population per TD ratio in the State must lie within a 20,000 to 30,000 range, means the largest reduction possible amounts to a 13-seat reduction. The range between 152 and 160 seats advised in the 2011 Electoral Amendment Act suggest a number somewhere in the middle of this may be agreed on, most likely 156 seats, amounting to a 10-seat reduction, far less than the 52% cut in the number of Clare councillors.
This is a bitter pill for town councillors to swallow when they watch their own town council disappear without any corresponding radical reform of the Dáil or Seanad.