Boundary revisions will have big impact on local government

Column: Apprehensions that small towns will lose out are understandable

Minister for Local Government Phil Hogan deserves credit for finally seeking to put in place a more rational relationship between the number of councillors in an area and the population there. Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Local Government Phil Hogan deserves credit for finally seeking to put in place a more rational relationship between the number of councillors in an area and the population there. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sat, Jun 1, 2013, 01:00

The prospect of electoral boundary revisions inevitably causes a flutter among our politicians. The publication on Thursday of the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee Report 2013 will have registered particularly strongly on political heart monitors. It represents the most dramatic redraw of local electoral areas and the largest redistribution of local authority seats in the history of the State.

This review was undertaken, on a statutory basis, by a committee comprising a retired secretary general and current principal officer of a government department, a former senior local government official, Prof Gary Murphy of Dublin City University and Marian Vickers, the chief executive of Northside Partnership Dublin. The committee’s recommendations are likely to be implemented in full, thereby determining both the lie of the land and the size of the pitch in each area for next June’s local elections.

Minister for Local Government Phil Hogan deserves credit for finally seeking to put in place a more rational relationship between the number of councillors in an area and the population there. The instruction to the committee was to provide for one councillor per every 4,830 population, with a 10 per cent plus or minus flexibility.

However, there were certain restrictions imposed on the committee. The Minister limited the maximum size of any council to 40 members, save in Dublin City Council which was capped at 63 and Cork County Council which was capped at 55. He also ordered that the minimum number of councillors on any county council would be 18.

There was also an allowance provided for four additional members in a county which currently has a borough council and one additional seat where there is a town council.

The committee was also restricted by the fact that before it began its work the Government had already decided to merge the city and county councils in Waterford and in Limerick and to merge North and South Tipperary county councils.

Local electoral map
The other instruction to the committee was to draw up local electoral areas with between six and 10 seats as opposed to the current system of between three and seven seats. The local electoral map for next year’s elections will, as a result, see a dramatic increase in the size of local electoral areas.

This provision for wider constituencies was a politically noble gesture by Hogan since in the ordinary course Fine Gael would have expected to benefit from keeping the local electoral areas small. Independents and smaller parties, and a resurgent Fianna Fáil, are likely to benefit more from the larger areas.

Overall this report provides for more county councillors. Notwithstanding the reduction in the number of councils arising from the mergers in Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary, the number of city and county councillors will increase from 883 to 949. There will, of course, be redistributions: Dublin overall will get 53 new councillors whereas some counties such as Cavan, Monaghan, Sligo and Leitrim will have fewer.

As well as redrawing the local electoral areas for county and city councils, the Minister has announced that town councils and borough councils, which between them have 774 seats, will be abolished from next year. It is this abolition that allows the Minister to say his proposal reduces the total number of councillors and thereby saves money. He is correct about the number of councillors being reduced but the categories of councillors being abolished are very different.

Talk of significant savings may also be overstated. The cost saving in abolishing town councils has to be set against the increase of 66 city and county councillors. Payments to town and borough councillors cost about €4,000 each per year whereas payments to county councillors can cost on average about €30,000.

It is always crude to see or present political or administrative reform purely in terms of monetary savings. The reality is that even if cost-neutral the streamlining of local government along the lines proposed will be a significant improvement. That said, there are understandable apprehensions that smaller towns will lose out within the local authority process if they don’t have designated councils.

The Minister proposes to replace town and borough councils with a new tier of local government at sub-county level called “municipal authorities”. Those elected next June will serve simultaneously on these municipal authorities and the county councils. The municipal authorities will each cover a local electoral area or, in a few cases, a combination of local electoral areas.

The changes heralded in this week’s report are of psephological significance, of which more in later columns. However, it is their impact on the operation of local government itself which is even more significant.

Twitter: @noelwhelan

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