Saving local democracy

Mon, May 5, 2014, 01:00

The coming elections will witness the transformation of local authority structures as town councils disappear and the number of county and city councils is reduced to 31. The number of councillors will fall by 70 per cent to 950. These radical changes have been justified on the grounds of greater accountability and “putting the people first”. But cost cutting is a more likely explanation. Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has estimated that savings will amount to €420m when the changes are fully implemented.

The wholesale abolition of town councils swept away creative, properly functioning local chambers and truly dreadful talking shops. Integration of the needs of those towns into county council structures will influence public attitudes to local democracy. Similarly, the amalgamation of Waterford City and County, Limerick City and County and Tipperary North and South will challenge the abilities of both councillors and officials to maintain public confidence in impartial and effective administrations. There are solid reasons why the removal of historic boundaries can assist economic and social development. Size and linkages do matter in terms of civic progress. Commenting on the merger of Limerick City and County Council, former Progressive Democrats leader Des O’Malley said the city area was too small and should have been merged earlier. Most private developments had taken place outside the city in recent years and had contributed to its decline.

Expanding traditional boundaries should not affect the quality of democracy in Limerick, Waterford or Tipperary and it may help to invigorate it. Much depends on the ability and ambition of newly elected councillors and their determination to make their communities a better place in which to live. Councillors have experienced a steady erosion of their powers and responsibilities since the foundation of the State, much of it justified. Abuses, corruption and political opportunism at local level caused the transfer of health, education, national roads, waste management and planning oversight to national agencies and to professional managers and officials. Water and sanitation has now been removed and the power of councillors to direct managers on contentious planning issues will be extinguished.

So, what remains? Well, councillors will be able to shape policy in relation to local roads, housing, development plans, public safety, cleaning services and libraries. But the implementation of such policies, or otherwise, falls to council executives and officials. A rebalancing of responsibilities through the promised transfer of reserved functions to councillors would help. So would the introduction of directly elected mayors and flexibility in the use of property tax revenues. Saving money is one thing. Local democracy another.

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