Councillors ask Hogan for reprieve


TOWN AND borough councillors have made an 11th-hour plea to Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan not to abolish their local authorities.

The publication of long-delayed plans for local government reform is expected next week. The Minister is due to address the annual conference of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, which represents town, borough and city councils, in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, tonight.

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, last July, Mr Hogan said it was “extremely likely” the number of local authorities and councillors would be cut.

However, association president Ted Howlin said Mr Hogan had given an assurance he was not going to abolish town councils.

“Over a number of years, local government has been decimated and powers have been removed from local councillors. What we want to see is power given back and I expect town councils to be part of the new arrangements,” he said.

Councillors were “extremely frustrated” by the long delay in publishing the reform programme, added Mr Howlin, a brother of Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin.

“I would like to see what he is proposing. Then we will be meeting as a body and formulating a response, but for the moment I am taking the man at his word that he intends to keep town councils.”

Davy Hynes, a Wexford borough councillor, said he expected Mr Hogan’s proposals would result in councillor numbers being cut by at least one-third.

“We have seen the dismantling of town government over several decades with responsibilities taken away. This is the final nail in the coffin,” he said.

Johnny Walsh, of Ballinasloe Town Council, accused Mr Hogan of showing a “total lack of respect” to local councillors because they were left in a vacuum for so long without any information about their future.

Town councils will “die a death of 1,000 cuts” unless councillors fight for their survival, a leading local government consultant told the conference.

Councillors had a great opportunity to strengthen local democracy but only if they stood up and fought for it, said Seán Ó Riordáin, director of the Public Policy Advisors Network.He said it was his understanding that the Government was beginning to accept the argument for “town and environs” government – a municipal system of authorities – and this could provide a stronger system of local government by councillors.

“If you lie back, expect to get run over. But if you use your voice I think you have a national political environment that would be willing to listen,” he said.

The concept of moving away from centralised government back to local “citizen-centred” democracy had gained traction in Europe, where there was a movement back to municipal government. The savings arising from getting rid of town councils were very limited, he said, and would be “in the low tens of millions in the best-case scenario”.

When compared with the loss of local decision-making, these savings were not worth it and, international experience had shown, would cost money in the long term, he said.

“The problem is that when you break a system it’s very difficult to put it back together. Mistakes were made by other countries and time and again we go down the same road and make the same mistakes,” he said.

The loss of town-level democracy would result in an inability to influence decisions at a national level; a loss of local leadership; and the loss of a reservoir of potential candidates for national politics, he added.