Can we get by without our friendly local town councillors?
With the announcement of plans to reform local government, many town councillors fear they may no longer be able to serve their local communities
THE HEADQUARTERS OF Athy Town Council, in Co Kildare, has so much glass it is halfway to being a greenhouse. In summer it can get so oppressively hot it feels like one. On Wednesday evening, there was no fear of that. The nine councillors debated around the table as the rain drummed noisily on the glass roof above. Just outside the door of the chamber, the swollen River Barrow looked like it was about to breach its banks.
If the councillors felt deluged that night, it wasn’t by the inclement weather. The cause, as it happened, was a 200-page policy paper published by the Minister for Environment and Local Government, Phil Hogan, the previous day. Its title: Putting people first. Its subtitle could have read, “Putting town councils last”. Almost half the debate of the two-hour monthly meeting was devoted to what the new policy would do to the town council. Put simply, it meant curtains.
Politicians are prone to overstatement, but Hogan’s claim that his reforms were the most far-reaching since 1898 was right on the button. The headline changes were the abolition of the 80 town councils scattered throughout the State and the reduction in the overall number of councillors from 1,627 to 950. The claimed savings of €400m seemed fanciful, but Hogan’s overall case for reform was strong. In 2001, the 80 town councils were created to replace five boroughs, 49 urban district councils and 26 town commissioners. But the powers of the new councils remained as they had been before. They varied widely, between counties and even within counties. As far as the 26 former town commissioners went, they were virtually powerless, with no real revenue-raising powers such as rent, water charges, or commercial rates. And then there were out-dated and illogical boundaries and lots of duplication. Bizarrely, in Athy, the county council is responsible for the main street, with the town council in charge of the side streets. Nor does the writ of the town council run to its natural rural hinterland.
That is compounded by frankly unfair historical anomalies that meant smaller towns such as Athy (population 10,000) had a town council, while other towns in Co Kildare where population had grown in recent years – such as Celbridge (19,537) and Maynooth (population 12,510) – had none. That issue of growing towns having no council is evident in many counties.
Hogan’s plan is to replace the two-tier system of a town councillor and a more senior county councillor with just one councillor. The new form of councillor would be elected to a “municipal district” first (composed of a cluster of towns and their hinterlands) and also to the county council. A municipal district council of between six to 10 councillors would replace the town councils (but encompass a much wider area). Hogan promised that the municipal districts would be bestowed with far more power and functions.