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.
Mark Wall, an electrician and Labour councillor, is the current cathaoirleach. He and town clerk Brian O’Gorman (a dynamic enthusiast for Athy) pose for a photograph in front of six plaques, bearing the name of Wall’s predecessors. The first was Matthew J Minch in 1900. Wall is conscious that he will be the 112th and also the last, and acknowledges it with a tinge of sadness.
“This town council has worked for the whole of the people of Athy through the years,” he says. “Party allegiances, in the main, have been left outside the door.”
Athy is an attractive town, with many lovely heritage buildings. Walking through it, you can’t help noticing it also bears the pock-marks of the recession, with unfinished estates and a fair smattering of vacant retail premises.
The old town is dissected by the River Barrow and bordered by a branch of the Grand Canal and by the railway line. The new M9 motorway has made it attractive as a commuter satellite to Dublin and as a result its population has risen to 10,000.
The council does have some powers such as water services, roads, housing and planning, and employs 25 people. It raises some of its funding from rates, water charges and parking fees. But generally, councils are toothless tigers when it comes to autonomous powers.
At the meeting, Fianna Fáil’s Mark Dalton puts it best: “Power has been pared away like an onion over 40 to 50 years.” The symptoms of that? There is genuine frustration among the councillors about lack of response from central government about a plan to take over boarded-up properties to accommodate families living in overcrowded conditions. There is also anger among councillors that their refusal of an amusement arcade development in the town centre was overturned by An Bord Pleanála.
What happened during the course of the two-hour meeting gave a powerful evocation of the town and its good, and bad, points. It was also a telling illustration of the impact that decisions made at central government have at a micro level. A discussion on an unfinished estate (“the roads are haywire, the houses are haywire,” said a despairing Cllr Tom Redmond) reveals a Nama connection and a reminder of the building crash. Before entering the chamber, I knew the party allegiance of just one councillor, Wall. By the end, I knew all bar one because in a row over rates, Fianna Fáil’s decision to abolish rates in 1977 came up and true colours were revealed.
What shone through though was collegiality. The public service commitment they all displayed was very impressive. Every member seemed to be involved in voluntary organisations and initiatives of one kind or another: the GAA, the heritage centre (where an autumn school remembering Kildare explorer Ernest Shackleton is due to take place over the bank holiday weekend), the arts centre, Tidy Towns, river-tourism projects, and a skateboard park.
It’s obvious they all care about the community. Cllr John Lawler points out they get €3,400 before tax, a very modest stipend given the hours they put in. And you sense that all of them would do it for free.
The debate on Hogan’s plan is fascinating because all nine councillors are sanguine about it. That may be because Kildare is one of the few counties where the number of county councillors is increasing (from 25 to 40). Wall and Fine Gael’s Richard Daly are full county councillors.
The increase in numbers means others will contest the next election and as many as five of the nine could escape the cull. Most other counties are not so lucky. They are losing councillors, leaving no escape hatch for the lowly town councillors. That’s why the anger in Athy seems very muted. And that’s also why there is so much anger elsewhere.
Redmond outlines at the meeting a defence of town councils that’s widely shared by his colleagues. “It’s about representation and democratic accountability, and delivering the services as close to the ground as possible,” he argues. “For all its faults, when people had issues they knew whom to go to. One of the strengths is that people know their elected representatives.”
Cllr Aoife Breslin says it is that familiar sense that characterises town councils: “We live and work in the community. The people come to your doorstep and expect you to represent the people in your own area.”
Unsure of the shape of the new municipal districts, the councillors can only hope that they don’t lose too much of what makes town councils so valuable for all their lack of power: their intimacy, their immediacy, democracy in action at the most micro level.
“We have to fight and be local as we always do,” is Wall’s battle-cry for facing into the deluge.