Local authorities now need more power, not less to keep in touch with communities
Opinion: Government has proposed abolition of town councils, not their reform
Phil Hogan: has promised the most dramatic change to local democracy in a century. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The need for urgent reform of our political system unites politicians, commentators and public alike. Reform needs to happen at all levels of our democracy to ensure the people are served by a system that is accountable, functional, democratic and local.
As a town councillor, I see first-hand the need for reform at the lowest level of the political system: local government.
Last week, in the wake of the defeat of the referendum on abolishing the Seanad, a vote that clearly signalled the strong support for political reform, Local Government Minister Phil Hogan published the Local Government Reform Bill.
The Minister hit the airwaves from early morning, promising the most dramatic change to local democracy in a century. A big promise indeed, one that our membership and others were hopeful would live up to the claim. Instead, it soon became clear that another significant opportunity to radically change how local government works has not been grasped.
The Bill included attention- grabbing headlines: 678 councillors to get the boot and 80 town councils to be abolished, to name but two.
However, like so much else that passes for reform these days, the devil is in the detail. The real test for reform must surely be whether this Bill will bring decision-making closer to communities and assure their interests are understood and served. Regrettably, it does not.
Our organisation, the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland (AMAI), the representative body for our 80 town councils, does not oppose reform. On the contrary, we have been crying out for it for years. But once we scrutinised this Bill, our confidence that it would deliver real reform evaporated. The abolition of 80 town councils is now proposed. There is little to indicate their replacement, municipal district councils, as currently envisaged will deliver better, more effective, more people-centred local government.
Local communities and their democratically elected representatives are best placed to decide what works best in their areas. In many other countries, Scandinavian in particular, municipalities have a much broader role in local decisions, with diverse powers in areas such as early learning and education, social welfare and healthcare services. Not so in Ireland, and not under Minister Hogan’s proposed reforms.
Another reason why the health of local government will be worse off under these reforms lies with who will now decide how money is spent in local communities.
Town councils currently have the power to determine local charges, such as commercial rates or parking fees, and to then decide how these money is spent within their towns. This power is now being taken away.
Money matters. Whoever controls it determines local services and how they are delivered.
There is now also a serious question mark over the future funding of community groups across the 80 town council areas. With scarce resources and cuts in State financing already a fact of life for these groups, losing town council funding could spell their total demise. Critical services delivered at the lowest levels, targeted to meet local needs and often at a fraction of the cost, will be lost.
The AMAI calls on TDs and Senators to amend this legislation to ensure that it delivers on the promise of real reform.
Like Seanad reform, a stark question lingers: why has the Government only proposed the abolition of town councils and not their reform?
Like the Seanad referendum too, this is not what the people have called for. As the saying goes: “Those who do not learn the mistakes of the past, are destined to repeat them.”
People want more powers devolved to local communities to allow them a greater say in how their taxes are spent, and to give them greater autonomy to determine what works best for their community, not less.
It’s time to give the people what they demand.
Willie Callaghan is president of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland